The Calling of Saint Brother André Bessette
“What do I do with my life?” This is a question we all ask growing up, but Alfred Bessette was obliged to ask it more urgently and at a much younger age than most. Born in 1845 to a modest family in Canada, he was orphaned at 12 years old and, although taken in by his aunt’s family, it became necessary for him to work.
Young Alfred took a variety of jobs over the ensuing years, including apprentice shoemaker, baker, farmhand, itinerant laborer, and factory worker. He was confronted throughout with the question of his future, but he found comfort in prayer, often meditating on Christ’s Passion, and in his devotion to Saint Joseph.
Many people had commented on his piety over the years until finally Father André Provençal spoke to him about the religious life. After the young man said he was most happy in church and at prayer, Father Provençal prophetically wrote to the superior of the nearby Holy Cross brothers in Montreal, “I am sending you a saint.”
Key to the consecrated life or the priesthood is the call and then the response. Each of us has a role to play in that process, helping others to recognize their vocation.
When he entered religious life in 1870 at the age of 25 and was given the name Brother André, he immediately felt the joy and comfort of a stable community, of family, that had been lost to him as a young boy. He also found fulfillment and purpose, while those he encountered found in him a blessing. When he died, 78 years ago today at the age of 91, an estimated one million people came to his funeral. In 2010, this humble man was canonized a saint.
The community was the Congregation of Holy Cross, which had been founded in 1837 by Blessed Father Basil Moreau in Sainte-Croix, France. Today the Holy Cross family includes distinct societies of religious brothers and priests bound together in one brotherhood, as well as three groups of sisters. Among the Congregation’s works in our country is the founding of the University of Notre Dame in 1842 and, closer to home, the establishment of Silver Spring’s Holy Cross Hospital by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1963.
It should not surprise us, as people of faith, that Brother André realized his fulfillment in giving of himself to others. While he did any odd job that needed doing, he is perhaps best known for two things – his boundless hospitality to the sick and the founding of the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal.
Beginning with his service as doorkeeper at the Congregation’s school for boys in Montreal, and later for the rest of his life during his travels, Brother André often visited the sick and afflicted, offering them consolation and prayers. With zeal for their souls, he spoke to them with simplicity about God and his mercy, encouraging them in their faith.
When many of the people Brother André prayed for were restored to health, he acquired a reputation as a healer. Thereafter, a steady stream of ailing people came by the school to lay their misery before him, while thousands more wrote to him asking for his prayers. The lowly Brother André, who was himself always in frail health, strenuously denied that any good was because of him, insisting that any healing was due to the Lord through the intercession of Saint Joseph.
During this time, Brother André would look across the street at Mount Royal and envision there a shrine dedicated to Saint Joseph. After the Congregation acquired the land, he was given permission to proceed. Taking the money he had saved from giving haircuts for five cents apiece, in 1904 he built a small chapel on the hill, but he had in mind something greater still – the towering Oratory that stands nearby today. This magnificent house of prayer is the world’s largest shrine dedicated to the foster father of Jesus and spouse of Mary, attracting more than two million pilgrims a year. The lower level near the tomb of Brother André is filled with the crutches of those who attribute their healing to his prayers and the intercession of Saint Joseph.
Like Saint Joseph, Brother André found his calling in life as a humble servant. “Wholly inhabited by the mystery of Jesus, he lived the beatitude of pure of heart,” said Pope Benedict XVI at his canonization. “It is thanks to this simplicity that he enabled many people to see God.” May Saint Brother André help you to know what God has in store for your life.