We climbed to the upper church, with its soaring ceiling and statues of the Apostles arrayed around the perimeter in the style of totem poles. I remember I didn't particularly like those, but I was duly impressed by the sheer scale of the place. We then trotted back down the hill, and down the long flight of steps, the better to admire the facade. Our explorations ended, we went on our way, but I recall feeling a certain admiration for the devotion of a people that could cause such a structure to arise. It never occurred to me that there might have been a particular person, a man with a particular face, behind it all.
In fact, it was not until years later that I first heard the name of André Bessette, or Brother André, as he was usually called, or St André of Montreal, as he is now called. It gradually became clear to me, from remarks I heard here and there, that this Brother André had something or other to do with the Oratory in Montreal. I now know that it was his simplicity, goodness, and devotion to St Joseph that inspired the people of Montreal to build it. The Oratory, and the devotion it expresses and inspires, was his gift to us.
He was actually born Alfred Bessette, the eighth child of a poor family in a small town some distance from Montreal. His young life must have been a hard one. Four of his siblings died early in life, and by the time Alfred was 12 both of his parents had died. At that point he was forced to leave school, wandering from job to job, both in Quebec and in the United States, rather aimlessly it seems. In 1867, when in his early 20s, Canada became a nation and Alfred returned to his homeland in search of opportunity.
A few years later, at the age of 28, he presented himself as a candidate to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious community that had been founded in France a few decades earlier, and which had an active community in Montreal. He was accepted, took the name André, and became the porter at the nearby Collège Notre-Dame, a school for boys situated then, as now, at the foot of a great hill.
At this point the external events of Brother André's life become rather sparse. He served faithfully as porter to the school, but he must have been a man whom people remembered. He became known for his devotion to St Joseph, and a few reports of healing miracles began to circulate.
In 1904, after several decades as porter, and when he was nearly 60 years old, he began to promote the idea of building a chapel dedicated to St Joseph at the top of the great hill overlooking the Collège. If you stand at the base of the hill today you can understand the temptation to put something there. The bishop granted permission, so long as he raised the funds in advance. He built a simple wooden structure, initially without a roof, but after a few years and a few more donations it was capped off.
There were more healings. It is said that he would always deflect responsibility: it was St Joseph's doing. He would visit the sick. People remember him for having a good sense of humour. Meanwhile his fame spread, and the stream of people seeking his counsel and the shelter of his chapel grew steadily. The chapel was expanded, then expanded again. Eventually Brother André conceived the notion of replacing it with the world's largest shrine honouring St Joseph. And although he did not live to see it, the Oratory that stands atop the hill today, begun in 1924 and completed in 1967, is the realization of his dream.
When he died in 1937 it is said that a million pilgrims came to pay their respects. And they have continued to come, with over 500,000 visitors to the Oratory each year. Of which, one year, I was one.
So much for the events of his life. What kind of man was Brother André? What kind of saint was he? He was evidently a simple man, kindly and patient. He seems to have disliked the attention he received. He denied having healing powers. "I have no gift and I cannot give any," he said. He wondered aloud why so many people asked him for cures but so few asked for humility and faith. He liked to speak to people about the love of God, not in the abstract, but in a comforting, reassuring way. And people loved him for it. In his homily at St André's canonization, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted his simplicity:
It is thanks to this simplicity, he showed many God... May we, following his example, search for God with simplicity to discover Him always present in the core of our lives!I think of St André as a "pointer saint", almost a kind of "second order saint". It is a commonplace (and a truth) that all saints are "pointer saints" in that they point us to Christ. But there are a few saints who point us to Christ by first pointing us at another saint. I think of St Louis de Montfort in this way; he is known principally for promoting devotion to the greatest of all saints. I am not sure I can think of any other examples, apart from St André, whose love of St Joseph was central to his piety and his legacy.
It was Pope St John Paul II who beatified him in 1982, and Pope Benedict XVI who canonized him in 2010. A school near my house which is named for Brother André recently updated their sign to read "St Brother André". It was nice to see.
Last Sunday I came out of Mass to find a pamphlet tucked under my wiper blades. At the bottom of the last page was this:
For the Canonization of Brother André
O Jesus, / you wanted the devotion to your foster-father Saint Joseph / to be made known through the efforts of Brother André, / grant that the Church may glorify, / at the earliest opportunity, / this faithful friend of the poor, / the sick and the afflicted. Saint Joseph of Mount Royal, pray for us.
A bit out of date, I suppose, but Amen.
A bit late, but here are some pictures of the original oratory and the current one as it was being built.
Thanks to Marianne for the link.
Craig Burrell, another friend from Light on Dark Water, has his own wonderful blog, All Manner of Thing, which is one of the three blogs I read at this point, and where you can find out about everything from gravitational waves to opera to Antarctica (which was an especially fascinating series of posts).
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.