Saturday, January 06, 2007

Blessed Andre Bessette.. Weird for God

I first became acquainted with Blessed Brother Andre Bessette when I was in graduate study at Notre Dame, South Bend. He was a Holy Cross brother, so I would see his holy cards and picture around the campus occasionally.

It wasn't until four years ago when I vacationed in Montreal that I actually got to know who he was. There I visited the huge and ornate Oratory of St Joseph, perched on Mount Royal, from which Montreal takes its name. The exterior, constructed while Andre was still alive in the 1930's , is very classical in style. The interior, finished in the 1960's and 1970's is starkly modern. In the undercroft is Brother Andre's heart, perfectly preserved and on display.
Quite unexpected.
But not as unexpected as Blessed Andre himself. He is a wonderful saint, one who I would say was "a little weird for God."

The young man was almost illiterate, and was several times rejected by the Holy Cross order before finally being admitted. He became gatekeeper of the college in Montreal and from that humble position thousands of the poor and the needy and the sick learned of and came to him for guidance and healing.

The rest of the story is best told by this excerpt from his life story as told at

When Brother André was appointed doorkeeper to the order’s college in Montreal, it was surely no accident. His gentle manner, his pleasant disposition, and his knack for putting people at ease--along with his ability to speak English--made him a perfect choice. But there was more than logic here. As future events would reveal, divine providence was at work as well.

After his work for the day was finished, Brother André visited the sick and the elderly in their homes or in the hospital. He put all of his good nature and good humor into these outings, and some criticized him, saying he just liked to travel around in a car. But André responded, “There are some who say that it is for pleasure that I visit the sick, but after a day’s work it is far from being a pleasure. Homes for the poor are filled with men and women who have been abandoned, without relatives or friends. . . . It would do healthy men good to visit the sick.”

As a result of these visits, thousands of the poor, the hurt, and the unhappy came to see André in his little office. There he counseled them, cried with them, and prayed for them. At times he could be quick or sharp, especially when he was fatigued. But whenever he realized that he had spoken sharply, he would repent and remind himself, “At least they know that I am nothing but a poor sinner.” Brother André did not distinguish among those who asked for his help. He prayed for everyone. “Our Lord is our big Brother, and we are the little brothers. Consequently, we should love one another as members of the same family.”

Brother André had a particular love for the Eucharist and encouraged people to go to Communion frequently. “If you ate only one meal a week,” he would say, with a note of sadness in his voice, “would you survive? It is the same for your soul.” Although he had a deep devotion to St. Joseph, his primary love was the Passion of Christ, on which he often meditated. For André, Jesus’ death on the cross was the supreme act of God’s love for man.Worker of Wonders and Friend of St. Joseph.

After five years as doorkeeper, André’s miraculous powers began to manifest themselves. One day, he visited a student suffering from a severe fever in the infirmary and told him, “You are in perfect health. Go outside and play.” The young man did, and when a doctor came to check him, he was perfectly well. Soon afterward, a smallpox epidemic broke out at the order’s college in Saint Laurent. Many had fell ill and some died. Brother André volunteered to nurse the sick, and when he arrived he knelt and prayed to St. Joseph. Not another person died. Reports of these healings began to circulate throughout Montreal, and the trickle of early visitors developed into a flood of sick people seeking him out.

As a young man, André had a dream in which he saw a church in an unfamiliar setting. Later he recognized the place as the top of beautiful Mount Royal, and he became convinced that a shrine in honor of St. Joseph should be built there, but he kept his conviction quiet until the right time.

Meanwhile, the flood of sick people coming to the college had begun to disturb the parents of the students. So for a while André received the sick at a small trolley station--until the passengers began to complain. In the midst of all this turmoil, the Archbishop of Montreal asked André’s superior, “Will he stop this work if you order him to?” The superior testified as to his obedience. “Well then, let him alone. If the work is from God, it will continue; if not, it will crumble.” When some doctors charged André with being a quack, the health authorities cleared him as “harmless.”

From Porter to Construction Manager. Brother André was one of the first to count on St. Joseph as a realtor and appealed to him about property many times. For several years, Holy Cross authorities had attempted to buy land on Mount Royal, but the owners refused to sell. André, along with several other brothers and students, began planting medals of the saint on the property. Suddenly, in 1896, the owners yielded. The brothers owned the right piece of land, and André was one step closer to realizing his dream.

In 1904, when André asked permission to build a small chapel to receive the sick, his request was refused. His superiors did allow him, however, to put a statue of St. Joseph in a niche on the mountain. They told him to save the alms he received and the few pennies he earned as a barber for a future project. When he had collected two hundred dollars, he was given permission to build. All he needed were laborers.

Soon afterward, a mason with a serious stomach ailment asked André for prayer. André replied by asking, “If St. Joseph cured you, would you come and work with me on the mountain? If you are willing, I shall count on you tomorrow morning.” The mason obeyed, and for the first time in months was able to put in a full day’s work.And the People Just Kept Coming. Soon the first chapel was completed, and in 1908 Brother André took up residence there.

Pilgrims came by the thousands. André realized that a priest was needed, and he was given a young priest with failing eyesight to help out. After a few weeks, however, the priest told André that he couldn’t see any longer and would have to quit. “I feel that I have failed you,” the man said, distressed. André just whispered, “Wait until morning.” The following day, the priest’s eyesight improved dramatically and he was able to stay on. Pilgrims kept pouring in, and André knew that the chapel-turned-shrine would have to be expanded.During the Great Depression, enlargement of the shrine stalled for lack of funds. Undaunted, Brother André advised, “Put a statue of St. Joseph in the middle of the building. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll get it.” So a statue was brought in, and within two months construction was back on schedule.

The shrine which stands there today is the largest church in the world dedicated to St. Joseph. It fits André’s character that throughout the entire time of its construction, he never referred to this shrine as “his” project. Instead, he said, “God chose the most ignorant one.”Brother André died peacefully in a Montreal hospital in January of 1937. An estimated one million people climbed the slope of Mount Royal through rain, sleet, and snow during the seven days set aside to pay their final respects to this humble brother. Pope John Paul II beatified Brother André on May 23, 1982.

I wish we all could be like Brother Andre, caring for the poor and just a little "weird for God."

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