Feast Day : January 6
Also known as: Frère André; the Wonder Man of Mount Royal
Brother Andre was born Alfred Bessette on August 10, 1845, in a village east of Montreal. His father, Isaac, was a carpenter. Andre was frail from his first breath— in fact, he was baptized immediately after birth out of fear that he would not live. He grew up small, slight and of delicate constitution. Due to chronic stomach problems, he could not eat any solid foods. Throughout his life, his health was poor, yet the power of God flowed through him to heal others. He was influenced in childhood by the religious devotion of his mother, Clothilde. From an early age, he was drawn to St. Joseph. In 1870, he dedicated himself to a life of religious service with the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious order dedicated to the teaching profession. He was given the name Andre in honor of his sponsor, Pastor Andre Provencal. Due to his poor health and lack of stamina for physical work, the Holy Cross Brothers asked him to leave. He appealed to a bishop, who promised him he could stay. Unschooled and untrained, the only thing André could do was pray. He was given a lowly job as doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Mount Royal, a district of Montreal. At night he would go out and visit the sick. He demonstrated remarkable healing powers. The crippled walked and the cancerous were cured. Sometimes he rubbed holy oil on them, sometimes he touched them, sometimes he told them, like Jesus, simply that they were healed. He became renowned as the “Wonder Man of Mount Royal.” People traveled great distances to seek his healing. He credited his work to his patron, St. Joseph. He could be brusque and gruff with people, sometimes bluntly informing them that they could not be healed because they lacked faith in the power of God. It was Andre’s dream to build an oratory in honor of his patron saint. The archbishop of Montreal would give permission to do so only if André raised the money to pay for it. To that end, he saved small change and enlisted the support of others. In 1904, a tiny chapel was erected on Mount Royal on grounds opposite the college. It was often filled to overflowing by those who wished to be close to André. Over the years, donations funded expansions. Today the oratory’s huge basilica, set on the hilltop, rises taller than any building in Montreal. It holds 3,000 people. In his later years, André traveled around Canada and even to the United States, visiting New England, New York and New Jersey. He inspired Americans to make pilgrimages to Mount Royal. During his life, Andre endured the skepticism and downright opposition of some of his peers and superiors, who doubted that such a simple man could pos- sess such healing power and ability to attract the masses. He shrugged off the poor treatment. He always worked within his religious system, gaining permission for everything that he did. He prayed ceaselessly. Officially, he never was anything but a doorkeeper for his order. He was fond of saying, “When I entered the community they showed me the door, and I remained there for 40 years.” Though he seldom had much physical strength and often was ill, he always had stamina for healing and counseling. He attributed this to the intercession of St. Joseph. He often used oil from the lamp in the oratory as part of his healing. André died on January 6, 1937, after several days of severe pain from acute gastritis, a condition that had afflicted him his entire life. Approximately 30,000 people gathered for his beatification 50 years later. St. Joseph’s Oratory is the world’s largest shrine to St. Joseph. Some two million pilgrims come each year, many ascending the steps to the basilica on their knees. Brother André is buried inside the oratory in a small, black granite tomb, called the Black Coffin. Pilgrims come to touch the tomb and pray for healing, and numerous miracles have been reported. An entire wall inside the oratory is covered with canes and crutches that were discarded on the spot by people whom André healed. Andre’s heart is on view as a relic, encased in a clear glass container. Humble to the end, he could not envision such veneration of himself. “We keep relics of saints, not of persons like me,” he said.