By Francis Denis
For more than a century, Knights of Columbus have been making pilgrimages to St. Joseph’s Oratory, the largest church in Canada and the world’s largest shrine dedicated to St. Joseph. Located on Mount Royal, the highest point in Montréal, the shrine was founded in 1904 by St. André Bessette, a humble Holy Cross brother who, in 2010, became Canada’s first male saint.
Brother André, born Alfred Bessette in 1845, developed a deep devotion to St. Joseph from a young age. He entered the Congregation of the Holy Cross in December 1870 and served as the doorman of Montréal’s Notre-Dame College. There, he received many visitors, including many sick people seeking solace and aid. Brother André, who himself suffered from poor health throughout his life, would pray with them and anoint them with oil from a lamp burning before a statue of St. Joseph in the college chapel. News of his healing touch spread as people began to recover.
“Nothing that I do in the cures comes from me,” Brother André once said. “Everything comes from St. Joseph, who obtains these extraordinary graces from God. I am nothing more than a lowly instrument.”
In thanksgiving for the many favors obtained through St. Joseph’s intercession, Brother André formed a plan to build an oratory in his honor. The gifts Brother André received from many of his grateful visitors allowed him to erect a wooden chapel on Mount Royal in 1904. After construction on the Crypt Church began in 1915, Knights and other pilgrims began coming in large numbers.
Many people today, such as Thomas Altenburg, grand knight of Montréal Council 284 (Canada’s first council), are drawn to the shrine by devotion not only to St. Joseph but also to Brother André.
“I’ve developed a great friendship with Brother André, in part because I’m an eyewitness of miracles he still performs today,” said Altenburg. For nearly 20 years, Altenburg has worked directly with people suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, and he often accompanies them to the shrine.
“Such visits allow them to reconnect with the loving presence of God, from whom they have sometimes drifted away,” he said. “The most surprising thing is that I’m often not the one who suggests we go to the oratory — they do it on their own accord.”
What remains perhaps the Knights’ largest and most significant pilgrimage to the shrine took place 100 years ago, during a year consecrated to St. Joseph called for by Pope Benedict XV in 1921. Thousands of Knights and their families, including Supreme Knight James Flaherty, traveled to the Oratory, where they also met with Brother André, then 76 years old. Another large contingent of Knights visited two years later, when the Supreme Convention was hosted in Montréal.
Though Brother André died on Jan. 6, 1937, his life’s dream came to fruition when the massive oratory was finally completed in 1967.
Following Brother Andre’s canonization in 2010, then-State Deputy Pierre Beaucage of Québec, who was present in Rome for the occasion, was inspired to organize an official K of C presence every year at the Oratory on St. Brother André’s feast day, celebrated in Canada on Jan. 7. Beginning in 2012, hundreds of Knights have participated in the annual Mass.
Though COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible for Knights to gather together in large numbers in 2021, State Deputy Richard Paratte of Québec is hopeful that the feast day Mass next month will take place.
“We are praying to St. Joseph, Hope of the Sick, that in the coming year we will be allowed to pursue what has now become a K of C tradition in honor of St. Brother André.”
Last month, a group of K of C pilgrims and family members made the trek up to the shrine to express their devotion. Among them was Patrick Alcaide, faithful navigator of San Lorenzo Ruiz Assembly 3103 in Montréal.
“St. Joseph is an unparalleled model for men and especially for Knights,” said Alcaide. “While St. Joseph teaches men how to sanctify ourselves in the professional world, he reminds us that we must maintain a balance, and that Sundays belong to God and one’s family. That’s why we often go to the Oratory of St. Joseph — to recenter ourselves on what’s essential as Catholics.”
FRANCIS DENIS is a journalist and producer at Salt + Light Media and a member of Côte St-Paul Council 3193 in Montréal.
By Adrian Walczuk
Knights of Columbus in Poland are blessed to have a particularly historic place for pilgrimage during this Year of St. Joseph: the world’s oldest shrine dedicated to the protector of the Holy Family. The National Shrine of St. Joseph in Kalisz, the oldest city in Poland, is home to the first crowned image of Jesus’ adoptive father — an image that has been associated with countless miracles since 1670.
That year, St. Joseph appeared in a dream to a man in the nearby village of Szulec. The man was paralyzed, and his suffering was such that he had prayed to God to end his life. St. Joseph promised him that he would recover if he had an image of the Holy Family made according to his instructions and gave it to the church, which itself dates back to the 12th century. The man followed the mysterious command and was healed.
Soon, many Catholics began coming to Kalisz to make requests in front of the extraordinary image of St. Joseph, who is depicted with Mary, Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In 1770, due to numerous graces received in answer to prayers, the painting was deemed “miraculous,” and 26 years later a representative of Pope Pius VI visited the shrine to ceremonially crown the image. By the end of the 18th century, the shrine had received about 1,000 votive offerings given in thanksgiving for healings and help obtained through the intercession of St. Joseph.
Among the many miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Joseph of Kalisz, the story of the prisoners in Dachau concentration camp during World War II is of special importance.
A large group of prisoners in that camp were Polish priests who had a great devotion to St. Joseph of Kalisz. In the spring of 1945, as the war was coming to end, they sensed that their Nazi captors would liquidate the camp before they could be rescued. The priests turned to St. Joseph. A committee was formed to prepare prisoners for an act of consecration to the saint; at the center of the preparations was a novena.
On April 22, the last day of the novena, about 800 prisoners consecrated themselves to St. Joseph. A week later, American soldiers liberated the camp. It was later learned that, according to Heinrich Himmler’s orders, the prisoners were due to be executed just a few hours after the camp was liberated.
The priests made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the shrine in Kalisz in 1948 and returned each year for many decades afterward, fulfilling the vow they made in Dachau to spread devotion to St. Joseph. In 1970, they created a memorial chapel, called the Chapel of Martyrdom and Gratitude of the Dachau Priests, in the basement of the church.
Years later, St. John Paul II referred to the miraculous events in the Nazi camp when he visited Kalisz in 1997. “I would like to … thank the priests, prisoners of Dachau [who] entrusted their suffering, their Dachau fate to the Guardian of the Church of God,” the pope said. “On pilgrimage to the St. Joseph Shrine in Kalisz, they pray annually for their persecutors, and they also remember their brothers who were not given the chance to survive the camp and live long enough to see the day of freedom in their homeland.”
The story of the Shrine of St. Joseph in Kalisz and the liberation of Dachau is told in the K of C-produced documentary St. Joseph: Our Spiritual Father. Learn more about the film at kofc.org/stjoseph.
ADRIAN WALCZUK writes from Kraków, Poland, where he is a member of Father Michał Sopocko Council 17667.
By Cecilia Hadley
Knights Luc de Moustier and Arnaud Boutheon were participating in the annual March of St. Joseph in Paris last spring when they had an audacious idea. In this Year of St. Joseph, why not dream bigger? Why not a Great March — not across Paris but across France?
From that inspiration was born the Grande Marche de Saint Joseph, a 70-day, 950-km (590-mile) walking pilgrimage from Paris to southern France. The event was organized with leadership and support from numerous Knights of Columbus — including de Moustier, who is a member of St. Martin of Tours Council 16910 in Paris, and Boutheon, who serves as territorial deputy of France, where the Order has had a presence since 2015.
Beginning from Sacré-Coeur Basilica on June 7, pilgrims wended their way through 14 dioceses toward the Shrine of Our Lady of Graces and the Monastery of St. Joseph in Cotignac, where tradition holds that St. Joseph appeared to a shepherd in 1660. The faithful were encouraged to join for as long or as short as they were able: a few weeks, a few days, even a few hours. By the end of the Great March on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, nearly 10,000 people, including scores of Knights and their families, had participated.
One person who made the entire trek was St. Joseph himself, in the form of a statue created by de Moustier. The sculptor, who designed the statue in 2017, wanted to portray St. Joseph in a more natural, masculine pose than he appears in many statues. “Why show him carrying a child as a mother normally does?” he thought. “Why should we not make a St. Joseph carrying the child Jesus on his shoulders, like fathers often do?”
In his statue, the saint leans forward, climbing a step, his hands around the Christ Child’s ankles. Secure on his perch, Jesus raises a hand, pointing the way. Pilgrims transported the statue on a rolling platform the entire route, through Parisian suburbs, small villages and summer-green fields. Along the way, they prayed especially for the unity of families, for workers and the unemployed, and for the sick. They also collected prayer intentions from people they met.
These encounters with the people of France brought joy and hope to the organizers of the pilgrimage.
“Children, older people, people from all walks of life came out to walk behind Jesus and St. Joseph,” said de Moustier, who walked about 125 miles (200 km) of the route. “St. John Paul II wrote that the greatest joy for an artist is to bring joy. I must admit that I have been fulfilled.”
Boutheon was particularly moved by the warm welcome that local parishioners gave the pilgrims each night and the positive reactions they received even from people who were ostensibly far from the Church. “Authentic evangelization was made possible,” he affirmed. “And many hearts were opened.”
The revival of faith in France was the primary intention the Knights entrusted to St. Joseph during the Great March, and Boutheon believes that the French Knights will continue to play an important role in this mission. In helping to organize the pilgrimage, he said, they demonstrated the creative courage that Pope Francis praised in St. Joseph.
“This pilgrimage illustrated in a concrete way the power of mobilizing Knights, in the complementarity of their talents, in service to the Church,” Boutheon said. “The future of the Church relies on creative minorities and great friendships. The young Knights of Columbus in France can be this band of brothers who will be on the front line, with humility and boldness, for the re-evangelization of our country.’”
CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.
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