St. André Bessette
January 6, 2017
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
Can you imagine a million people taking part in a funeral? You witnessed that at the death of JPII. Another such funeral, which none of us witnessed, was that of a humble Holy Cross brother in Montreal in 1937.
St. André (1845-1937) was born into a poor family near Montreal. His father was a carpenter and woodcutter, which may have influenced his devotion to St. Joseph. By age 12 he’d been orphaned and had to work to survive—common enuf at that time. He worked for a while in Connecticut, like many young French Canadians.
But all his early life he had such poor health that the Congregation of the Holy Cross were reluctant to take him in as a candidate. That's the same congregation to which our bishop belongs and to whom the Univ. of Notre Dame belongs. Poor fellow lived only to the age of 91!
André was uneducated and barely literate. So Holy Cross had him to menial cleaning work, carry messages, bring in firewood, and answer the door. But he was extremely sensitive to people, especially the poor and the sick—the lowly of Montreal. When he became permanent doorkeeper of the HC school, crowds of people came to talk with him. He listened to their woes, joked with them, prayed with and for them. Characteristically gentle and patient, sometimes he did get upset, and he confessed he was “only human.”
Altho exhausted from a long day of that, after hours he’d go to visit the sick and the poor in their homes. He prayed especially thru the intercession of St. Joseph.
People noticed that when he prayed for the sick, often there were healings. During a smallpox outbreak at the HC house of formation that had killed several of the young men, he went to assist the sick; the epidemic ceased and no one else died.
With a growing reputation as a healer, Bro. André could no longer receive his many visitors at school; the parents complained about the disturbance. He went to a street car station to receive visitors; the passengers complained. So he went looking for some land where he could build a little oratory to receive visitors—dedicated to St. Joseph. He found property atop Mt. Royal—which the HC congregation had been eyeing for some time but which the owners refused to sell. Bro. André scattered medals of St. Joseph around like seed, and shortly after the owners changed their mind. The HC superiors told him he could build his oratory if he could raise the money; the money came.
So he built a little oratory, people kept coming, Bro. André kept praying with and for them, and then he raised money to build a new, grander shrine to St. Joseph—which today dominates the whole city of Montreal from the top of Mt. Royal and is the largest church in the world dedicated to St. Joseph.
Lowly, semi-literate Bro. André was a man of prayer and kindness, the faithful servant of St. Joseph and of the sick and the poor. And a million of them turned up for his funeral rites after he died on Jan. 6, 1937. He was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2011.
St. André teaches us to attend to the poor and the lowly and the sick, to people in need, and to treat people with kindness. He teaches us the importance of the saints, and particularly of some favorite patron saint whose protection we invoke and whose life we seek to imitate.