On United States Postal Service stamps, New York Times headlines or ESPN sidelines, one can spot them. Well-known and well-educated, the priests, brothers and sisters of the Congregation of Holy Cross receive honor and fame around the world. They began many schools in our diocese, the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College and Saint Mary’s College among them. But the congregation’s first and to date only saint, desired to be quite unknown and was rather uneducated. He regularly advised people who would come to him to rather, “Go to St. Joseph.”
Jan. 6 is the feast day of St. Brother Andre Bessette, CSC, the day he entered eternal life in 1937. Humble, obedient and relatable, the petite saint was often found in prayer or in service to another person. A brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, he was born into a faith-filled, poor French Canadian family southwest of Montreal in 1845. The eighth of 12 children, he was born sickly and quickly baptized that evening. The Bessettes lived in a happy and poor one-room home, often singing or praying the rosary together on their knees at night. When he was 9, his father was suddenly killed in the forest by a falling tree and his beloved mother died of tuberculosis a few years later. An uncle and aunt took him in, as other townspeople did later on, but Bessette’s poor health limited his physical work productivity, which was needed in the late 1800s for survival. He failed at trade after trade, unable to stay at a job. During the American Civil War, he even migrated to New England to work in the booming Union factories, where he learned English for the first time.
Returning to Canada in 1867, he learned about the Congregation of Holy Cross. This new order from France had come to Canada to educate and support the many French Canadian Catholics who previously been legally persecuted by the British-supported government for many years.
On Dec. 8, 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph of the Universal Church, a year dedicated to St. Joseph. That year also, on Dec. 27, Alfred Bessette was accepted as a novice and entered of the Congregation of Holy Cross, which at that time was known as the Josephites.
But even that endeavor, Bessette almost failed as a novice due to his lack of formal education and poor health. Through the intercession of St. Joseph and the support of a holy bishop, Bessette was finally accepted into the mainly teaching order and took his beloved pastor’s name. His novice master said of him, “If this young man becomes unable to work, he can at least pray. Dear Confreres (Brothers of Holy Cross), we are all dedicated to teaching people to pray. This man teaches mainly by his example.”
Five years into his vocation as a brother, miracles of healings began. Brother Andre was given the simple task of a porter, to open the door and welcome visitors to the College Notre-Dame in Montreal, as well as many other smaller duties. He had a gentle manner and pleasant disposition, which people could relate to and he set them at ease. Also, his knowledge of English was now quite helpful. Next to the main, front door, his bedroom was small, only 6 feet of space, with a wooden plank bed, crucifix on a bare wall and a window with a statue of St. Joseph looking out over the large, forested mountain, Mount Royal across the street. It didn’t matter much for him, as Brother Andre was known for praying on his knees all night anyway.
People heard about healings, of sick and ill students and priests at the college and came to Brother Andre to ask for his help. With a sensitive nature and heart full of charity, he listened to them, often rubbed oil from a votive lamp next to a statue of St. Joseph or gave them a medal of St. Joseph and recommended them to pray for St. Joseph’s intercession. Healings, large and small, were often quick and obvious. Always demur and self-effacing, Brother Andre always reminded people that it was St. Joseph who heals, not him.
Brother Andre would allow himself to be interrupted during the day to speak with visiting sick or those asking for prayer. He welcomed people as they came to him, never preferring those with power or wealth to those who did not. Each day, after his duties at the school, he would visit the homes of those who were sick or needed help and pray with them.
Brother Andre’s life was marked by extreme suffering — failures, poor health, misunderstandings, great losses, criticisms. But this suffering did not cause him to turn away from Christ, to sin and miss the mark, but rather St. Andre chose to embrace suffering, to turn closer to Christ, to unite his pain with that of Christ’s own passion. “People who suffer have something to offer the good God,” he often said. With hope and encouragement, Brother Andre advised, “Do not seek to be spared trials, ask instead for the grace to bear them well.”
“God takes care of His friends and His best servants by sending them the cross,” Brother Andre explained. “Suffering is of such great value that it can be fully rewarded only in Heaven.”
His dream was to do God’s will, short and sweet. Part of doing God’s will, Brother Andre believed, was building a shrine, a pilgrimage spot to St. Joseph, on Mount Royal, the highest, famed spot in Montreal. Beginning with only 200 dollars, saved for years, a few coins at a time for cutting the student’s hair, Brother Andre was 60 years old when he encouraged the building of the Oratory, or small chapel. Now the third-largest dome in the world, over 2 million people now visit the largest church in Canada each year. In front of the huge Oratory, is a statue of St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms, with the Latin words, “Ite Ad Joseph.” below. Inside that building though are thousands of thanksgivings, tokens of gratitude for graces received, such as crutches left behind. Brother Andre after praying with a handicapped person, often said, “Get up and walk,” not unlike Christ did Himself. St. Andre’s prayer was familiar and direct. His ability to lead people came from the fruit of his own continual, hourly prayer life.
When asked how he talked to St. Joseph or how he should be invoked, Brother Andre’ often repeated, “When you invoke Saint Joseph, you don’t have to speak much. You know your Father in heaven knows what you need; well, so does his friend Saint Joseph.”
On Dec. 8, the 150th anniversary of the declaration by Pope Pius IX of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church, Pope Francis also dedicated this year to St. Joseph. Filled with incredible opportunities for prayer, penance, conversion and grace, this coming year invites us to come to know Our Lord better through the strong and silent saint, his foster father. What small mustard seeds of our spiritual life might be planted this year? What journeys of deep faith, unwavering hope and charitable love might be traveled this year? What ailment prevents us from serving God better, which we desire to be healed from?
Let us turn to the humble saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Brother Andre, and his best friend, St. Joseph, to take our hand, walk with us and lead us ever closer to God, who is love and mercy itself.
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