Born: Alfred Bessette on August 9, 1845
Died: January 6, 1937
Canonized: October 17, 2010
What if someone told you that you could get to heaven by holding the door open for people? Sounds unlikely, but it’s true! André Bessette was a simple man, poor, uneducated, and sickly – relegated to being a doorkeeper and caretaker for most of his life – yet God performed countless miracles through him. He didn’t set out to do anything particularly extraordinary, but God often chooses these “little ones” to reveal His greatest mysteries.1. Perhaps his life continues to speak to us so profoundly today because it exemplifies what we need most of all: faith, humility, love and kindness. Like another much-loved saint of our times, Mother Teresa, Br. André did “small things with great love.”
For those of us living in Canada, the name “Brother Andre” is likely familiar as he is one of our own. Born Alfred Bessette on August 9th, 1845, near Montreal, Quebec, he was the eighth of 12 children. By the time Alfred was twelve years old, he had already lost both of his parents and was forced to go looking for work. For a while he was a farmhand and then tried several other trades. But poor health and weakness prevented him from sticking with anything for very long. Despite these many difficulties, he remained hopeful, trusting in God and praying to St. Joseph, to whom he had a strong devotion.
Eventually he returned home to Quebec, where he reconnected with his former pastor, Father André Provençal. The meeting would prove to be significant – even providential – because the priest, recognizing the boy’s piety, introduced him to the idea of religious life.2 A short time later he approached the Brothers of the Holy Cross, his only credentials being a note that read: “I am sending you a saint.”3Nevertheless, the brothers must have been a bit sceptical, peering at the frail, young man before them. No doubt they wondered whether he could live up to the demands of religious life. “Could he take the formation that they had all been through? Was his apparent piety enough to overcome such deficiencies?”4 Finally, at the urging of a sympathetic bishop, he was admitted to the novitiate and began his religious studies.
As with other pursuits, it was a rough start for Brother André, the name by which he was now known, chosen in honour of his mentor, Fr. André. Ironically, the Holy Cross Brothers were teachers, yet Br. André had never learned to read or write.5Poor health made it impossible for him to perform many of the duties of community life. Ultimately, he was given the rather menial tasks of “doorkeeper, infirmarian, and lamp tender at College Notre-Dame. His duties also included running errands, caring for the garden, cutting students’ hair, and managing the laundry.”6 In other words, he did whatever was asked of him! But he saw nothing as below him and did everything with joy and a spirit of service. Later in life, Br. Andre would often quip, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years.”7
It would prove to be an important post, as Br. André was the first person to greet the many visitors who came to the College. Sensing his compassionate nature, they shared their concerns with the kindly doorman, and he in turn encouraged them to pray to St. Joseph for help and healing. “When he heard someone was ill, he visited to bring cheer and to pray with the sick person.”8 He would often bring oil taken from a lamp burning in the chapel and many were healed. Soon, news of his healing power began to spread but Br. André refused to take any credit, attributing the miracles solely to the intercession of St. Joseph.
Miracle Man of Montreal
Before long, Br. André gained a reputation, but not one that was particularly desirable. His superiors at the Congregation were uncomfortable with all the attention. Lines stretched for hours, as the College was flooded with visitors in search of the “Miracle Man of Montreal.” Some saw him as a quack or, worse yet, a fake. Though he insisted that it was the work of St. Joseph, school officials were concerned and suspended his ministry. Ultimately, he was moved to a nearby tramway station, where he was allowed to receive and minister to the sick.
In 1896, the Congregation purchased a piece of land across the street from the College. Br. André surprised the bishop by asking if he could build a chapel there to honour his beloved St. Joseph. The bishop agreed, as long as Br. Andre could do it without going into debt. So, using the tips he received from haircuts and the change from a donation box to St. Joseph, Br. Andre collected a few hundred dollars and a modest chapel was built.
Five years later, after nearly 40 years of service at the College, Br. Andre was appointed full-time caretaker of the “house of prayer which he shepherded into existence on Mount Royal” – St. Joseph’s Oratory. In 1924, construction would begin on a grand basilica on the mount. Brother André wouldn’t live long enough to see its completion, but it stands today as a testament to his unwavering trust in God in spite of many difficulties. Who would ever have thought that a simple doorman could make a difference or do anything of great value? Yet the faith, compassion, and humble service of St. André Bessette have become a witness to millions.
Doing Something Great for God
I would venture to say that most of us want to do something great with our lives. But if we can take anything from the life of St. André Bessette, it’s that what we do isn’t nearly as important as how we do it. Whether you’re a doctor or construction worker, a politician or a painter, a media mogul or a greeter at Wal-Mart, we are all called to follow Jesus – to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”8
Our world tends to focus on the externals – things like income, status, education, and appearance. But the Lord sees everything differently – not merely what’s visible on the outside, but into the human heart. As St. Paul reminds us: “…the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”9 As we make plans and set goals for the New Year ahead, it’s a good reminder that, above all, if we want to set our sights on something grand, we must strive to be saints. What better way to accomplish that than to do small things with great love.
– Kelley Holy
1 Cf. Matthew 11:25
2 Cf. “Biography of Saint Brother André,” http://www.saint-joseph.org/en; Internet; accessed 30 December 2014.
3 Cf. Terry Matz, “St. Andre Bessette”; Catholic Online [online newsletter]; available from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=18; Internet; accessed 28 December 2014.
4 Brother Andre Marie, “Saint André Bessette: Montreal’s Miracle Worker,” Catholicism.org [online journal]; available from http://catholicism.org/br-andre.html; Internet; accessed 31 December 2014.
5 Cf. “Saint Brother Andre”
7 Cf. http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/Saint.aspx?id=1252; Internet; accessed 28 December 2014.
8 Cf. Micah 6:8
9 1 Corinthians 3:19