Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Brother André Bessette, CSC

Parish of Saint Grégoire, Mont-St-Grégoire, Iberville, Quebec

On August tenth, eighteen hundred forty five, I, priest undersigned, baptized Alfred, born the previous day, of the lawful marriage of Isaac Bessette, carpenter and Clotilde Foisy, of this parish. Godfather was Edouard Bessette, and godmother, Josephte Foisy, uncle and aunt of the child, who, as well as the father, declared that they were unable to sign. /s/ P A Sylvestre, ptre

Alfred was the eighth of the twelve children born to Isaac Bessette and Clotilde Foisy, who had been married in the parish of Saint Mathias, Rouville, on September 27, 1831. The entire family lived in a one room house. His father worked as a carpenter; his mother took care of the house.

On February 20, 1855, Isaac Bessette was killed when a tree he was felling fell on him. On November 10, 1857, Alfred’s mother died of consumption at the age of 43. At the age of 12, Alfred was an orphan. He was adopted by an uncle Timothée Nadeau, whose wife Rosalie was Clotilde Foisy’s sister. That year, while preparing to receive First Holy Communion, Alfred decided to emulate Saint Joseph, and committed himself never to marry. The following year, on June 7, 1858, Alfred Bessette received Confirmation from Archbishop Jean-Charles Prince of the diocese of Saint-Hyacinthe. At the age of 20, he went to stay with relatives in the United States, and spent two years working in the textile and paper mills of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He returned to Quebec in 1867.

Father André Provencal noticed that this young man was prayerful, and recommended him to the Holy Cross Brothers. When he came to Notre Dame College in Montreal, he carried with him a note from the pastor: “I am sending you a saint.” The Brothers found that difficult to believe. Alfred was not a healthy young man, and he had wandered from farm to farm, shop to shop, factory to factory in Quebec and in New England, staying only until his bosses found out how little he could accomplish. At the age of 25, Alfred was unable to read or write, not an unusual circumstance for most people of that generation, either in the United States or in Canada. The Holy Cross Brothers were educators; they seemed to think that Alfred had approached them not by vocation, but desperation.

Alfred was prayerful and deeply devoted to God and to Saint Joseph. He was convinced that this was the time and the place for him to stop wandering and settle down. The Brothers accepted him into their novitiate, but soon learned what others had found before them: Alfred, now known as Brother André, was willing to work, but simply wasn’t strong enough. They asked him to leave but André appealed to Bishop Bourget who was visiting, and who promised that André would stay and take his vows.

After his profession as a Brother, André was sent to Notre Dame College (a boarding school for boys age 7 to 12) as a doorkeeper. His responsibilities consisted of: answering the door bell, welcoming guests, finding the people they were visiting, wake up the students in the morning, and deliver the mail. Years later he would joke: “After my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door; but instead of leaving through it, I stayed right there for forty years.”

In 1904, he wrote to the Archbishop of Montreal, requesting permission to build a chapel in honor of Saint Joseph on the hillside near the College. The Archbishop declined to place that burden on the congregation, but allowed Brother André to build only what he had money for. What riches did Brother André have? Five cent pieces he had collected from the boys when he cut their hair. Five and ten cent pieces he collected in a small dish he had placed in a picnic shelter near the top of the mountain next to a statue of Saint Joseph, with a sign “Donations for Saint Joseph”. He collected small change for several years, but still had only a few hundred dollars. Who could start a chapel with such meager funding?

André took his few hundred dollars and build what he could: a wooden shelter only 15’ x 18’. He kept on collecting, and three years later, returned to the Episcopal Palace to request more building. The Archbishop commented, in a wry voice, “Are you having visions of Saint Joseph telling you to build a church for him?” Brother André replied, “Bishop, I have only my great devotion to Saint-Joseph to guide me.

The Archbishop gave him permission to keep building so long as he did not go into debt. He added a roof to the shelter, then walls, heating, a shelter for pilgrims and, finally, a place where Brother André and others would live and take care of the shrine – and of the pilgrims, who came in great numbers. Over the years, Brother André helped many people experience healing and renewal on the mountain top. There were even some cases of physical healing.

Brother André never lost confidence or devotion. He had started to build a basilica on the mountain, but the Great Depression had intervened. At the age of 90, he told his co-workers to place a statue of Saint Joseph in the unfinished, unroofed basilica. He was so feeble that he had to be carried up the mountain to see the statue in its new home. He died not long after, on January 6, 1937. At his funeral, a million people came to pray before his coffin. His body now rests in the Basilica of Saint Joseph of Montreal. When his tomb was opened by the Ecclesiastical Tribunal on September 11, 1963, the body was intact and free of decomposition.

Brother André did not live to see the work of the basilica completed. But, in Brother André’s mind, it would never be completed because there are there are always more ways to bring comfort and healing to others.

Prayer: Blessed Brother André, your devotion to Saint Joseph is an inspiration to us. You gave your life selflessly to bring the message of his life to others. Pray that we may learn from Saint Joseph, and from you, what it is like to care for Jesus and do his work in the world. Amen.

No comments: