By Grace Small
St. André Bessette was born on August 9, 1845 and died Dec. 31, 1936. He is known as having had one of the greatest devotions to St. Joseph. From this ordinary man we can learn his extraordinary devotion and faith in St. Joseph. When people spoke of “Brother Andre” they knew him as the humble porter credited with the building of the majestic Oratory of St. Joseph on a mountain top in Montreal, Canada, to which he labored with such great zeal. Brother André is also remembered for the miracles wrought from his confident intercession of St. Joseph.
St. André can teach us what it means to have a living devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in that order of importance. By imitating some aspect of this saint’s life and praying for his intercession we are doing what all the saints in the Church Triumphant in Heaven did while they lived; depending on the Communion of Saints to which we are united in the Mystical Body of Christ. As sinners striving to grow in grace we depend on the saints for their support to bring about God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in Heaven,” and as members of the Church Militant to attain our eternal beatitude.
St. André was born Alfred, the eighth child of Isaac and Clothilde Bessette in a poor French Canadian family of 12 children. By their generous and devout example, the Bessettes taught Alfred the virtues of prayer and hard work which became a foundation to his Sanctity. After his father died in a tragic lumbering accident, his mother died soon afterward of tuberculosis leaving all the other children up for adoption except for frail Alfred who she kept with her while living with the support of her sister. When his mother passed away, Alfred continued to live with his aunt and uncle but he lacked the physical health and stamina to work on the farm or learn a trade. His physical weakness and problems with indigestion for most of his life made his life difficult but enabled him to embrace the will of God. So what made his ordinary life so extraordinary? The answer has to do with his life of prayer and penance.
As a child, Alfred came under the direction of Father André Provençal, the Curé of St. Césaire. This holy parish priest instructed Alfred for his first Holy Communion and inspired in him a devotion to St. Joseph — pious practices that would put him on the path to a religious vocation until he became a religious of the Holy Cross Congregation and took habit as a religious brother taking the name Brother André. When he was a child he would choose to spend his afternoons in church in prayerful conversation with God and the saints while other children his age chose to play. He also chose to practice severe penances for the love of Jesus Crucified. Often his aunt had to take from him the instruments of penance such as a leather belt pierced with tacks which he would wear around his waist or an iron chain and she would prevent him from sleeping on the floor. When he was told not to practice one penance he did not disobey, he just did another penance and these continued throughout his lifetime even as a religious.
However, penance and sacrifice, pain and suffering have no value without prayerful union with God. Brother André prayed continually throughout his sickness even though he was given the grace to intercede to St. Joseph for the healing of others. These sufferings were a path by which he strove for greater Sanctity. When people inquired if he was in great pain, he replied, “Indeed I am, but I thank God for giving me the grace to suffer; I need it so much!”1 Suffering for him was necessary to unite with Jesus Crucified and to gain graces for others. He did not see suffering as something to be avoided but as permitted by God and so he embraced it with gratefulness in union with the Passion of Jesus to which he was most devoted.
During these early years he started his lifelong formation of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament at hours at a time or in lengthy conversations with St. Joseph. His conversation was in Heaven. As St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Philippians about the difference between the children of the world and the children of God, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in Heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself, will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body” (3:19-21). Because he aligned his life according to the direction of his eternal destination, his humble, confident prayer in God and the saints had marvelous results. As the shrine’s guardian in 1909 he distributed St. Joseph’s oil, medals and Novenas for healing of the sick during the day, spending his nights in vigils of prayer. It is important to note that Brother André never claimed credit for working a single miracle. In humble truthfulness he gave all the credit to St. Joseph, in whose power he had boundless faith and confidence.
Aside from his great devotion to St. Joseph, his central devotion was to the Passion of Our Lord. He would often speak of Our Lord’s sufferings and his conversation would bring himself and his audience to tears. He also led the Stations of the Cross every Friday at the Oratory. In union with Our Lord’s Passion, Brother André joined his devotion to Our Lady as Our Lady of Sorrows, who is the Patroness of the Holy Cross Congregation to which he belonged. He was often seen visiting the sick or raising funds for the Oratory with the Holy Rosary in hand and prayed several Rosaries. In his simplicity he spoke to the virgin as a child would. In like manner he had a simple and childlike piety to St. Joseph. “When you invoke St. Joseph, you don’t have to speak much. You know your Father in Heaven knows what you need; well, so does His friend St. Joseph.” “Tell him, ‘If you were in my place, St. Joseph, what would you do? Well, pray for this in my behalf.’”2 Brother André encouraged confident and persevering prayer to St. Joseph which most often took the form of a Novena to the Patron of the Universal Church.
St. André in his childlike confidence exemplified Our Lord Jesus Who grew in His Sacred humanity under the authority of His foster father St. Joseph. Even in reference to His Heavenly Father he lovingly called Him “Abba.” Scripture reminds us that this, too, must be our posture before God Our Father: “Jesus invited a little child to stand among them. ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven’” (Mt 18:4). In all things, humble obedience, persevering and confident prayer, and childlike dependence on God, Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph was key to St. André’s Sanctity and so it must be ours. St. André would exhort those who came to him, “We must pray to St. Joseph, but always and in everything will nothing but what God wills.”3 Let us then with confidence “Go to Joseph” in this Year of St. Joseph to receive help and protection in our days.
1.”St. Andre Bessette: Montreal’s Miracle Worker.” Catholicism.org. October 25, 2004. https://catholicism.org/br-andre.html.
3. Bergeron, CSC, Henri-Paul. Brother Andre: The Wonder Man of Mount Royal. Montreal: Saint Joseph Oratory, 1997.
Small and her husband Bill have made their solemn profession as Third Order Franciscans of the Immaculate, through the Franciscans of the Immaculate in New Bedford.