Remembering St. Andre Bessette
"From Kahnawake, our pilgrimage took us to the Oratory of St. Joseph, Mount Royal in Montreal. I had had a sneak preview the weekend previous whilst visiting my sisters in Montreal and visited the small chapel of Frere Andre. Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal is a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine on the west slope of Mount Royal in Montreal.
In 1904, Saint André Bessette, a brother from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, began the construction of St. Joseph, a small chapel on the slopes of Mont Royal near Notre Dame College. Soon the growing number of visitors made it too small. In 1917 a larger church was completed that has a seating capacity of 1,000. In 1924, the construction of the basilica of Saint Joseph's Oratory was inaugurated; it was finally completed in 1967. Father Paul Bellot, an architect, completed the dome of Saint Joseph's Oratory (1937-39). The Oratory's dome is the third-largest of its kind in the world after the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire and Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the church is the largest in Canada. Pope John Paul II deemed the miracles to be authentic and beatified Brother André in 1982. In October 2010 Pope Benedict XVI canonized the saint. A reliquary in the church museum contains Brother André's heart, which he requested as a protection for the basilica. It is recorded that more than 2 million visitors and pilgrims visit the Oratory every year.
We first visited the small chapel and original residence of St. Andre. It was heartwarming to see the humble beginnings of the Oratory. It was here that he welcomed the poor and especially the sick, treating them with the only ‘medicine’ which he had, oil. Numerous people were cured and thus a steady flow of pilgrims began to seek out this humble brother who for years had served as the doorkeeper in his community. He credited all the miracles to St. Joseph. .In the small chapel, one can still see the numerous crutches left from those who came to him and were healed, including many members of the Protestant community. He always urged them to pray to Saint Joseph. Soon people were reporting that their prayers were being answered. So for the next 25 years, he spent six to eight hours a day receiving those who sought him out, first in his tiny cubicle, then in the small tramway station across the street from the College. Using the money he received for giving haircuts to the students, he decided to build a small chapel, an oratory dedicated to Saint Joseph with the help of some friends. He was convinced that Saint Joseph wanted a permanent shrine on the mountainside.
Brother Andre made visits to the sick all around, even to the United States where he also had friends. More and more, people were finding relief from illnesses that the doctors could not explain. Some people began to use the word miracle-worker, but he always protested, “I’m nobody… just a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument in the service of Saint Joseph.” He even went so far as to say, “It’s silly to think that ‘Brother Andre works miracles.’ It is God and Saint Joseph who heal—not me! I will pray to Saint Joseph for you.” He did and the cures increased.
A natural optimist, he was nonetheless a keen observer of human nature. “It’s odd. I’m often asked for cures, but almost never for humility or a strong faith. Yet that’s what’s really important.” “If the soul is sick, that’s where you begin to treat.” So, he often asked, “How’s your faith going? Do you really believe that God can do something for you? Okay then, go to confession and receive Holy Communion then come back to see me.”
Brother Andre was aware of the value of redemptive suffering. His thoughts on this were insightful. “People who suffer have a real gift to offer God. They carry on day after day; well, right there is the miracle.” There were people who claimed that Brother Andre passed on to them the charism of healing. To the contrary, Brother Andre averred that he possessed no ability to heal, “I have no such power, so I can’t pass it on.” His solution was always the same: make a novena to Saint Joseph, rub a bit with the oil or a medal of Saint Joseph. As he said, “These too are acts of love and faith, of confidence and humility.”
He usually encouraged people to see a doctor for treatment. At the same time he told doctors, “Your skills are awesome. Your knowledge is a gift from God. Show your gratitude prayerfully.”
“Show your gratitude prayerfully”- this was a phrase which stuck with me for the day. I had so much to be thankful for, even with all the challenges and suffering that life can often present. Our visit to Montreal was a blessing, an opportunity to walk with the saints. It was also a time of fraternity, to be pilgrims on the journey together. One of our giggle moments that day was waiting and sitting in the Church for the scheduled 3 o’ clock organ concert, only to realise that it was a scheduled church bell symphony which we had been commenting on from inside! The Lord has a sense of humour, I think! Not to mention, being paparazzi to woodpeckers and squirrels! Ah, the small things in life!
We also had the opportunity to light some candles to St. Joseph and pray for various intentions which we carried in our hearts. There is a separate chapel for want of a better word, where some 100,000 candles are divided into various side chapels all dedicated to the St. Joseph under the various patronages. It took us a while to realise that the candles were organised in such a way as to spell out the title both in French and in English but it was pretty extraordinary (not to mention warm!). I left the Oratory with somewhat mixed feelings. The building itself is quite impressive but there was also a starkness that made me wonder what Br. Andre would make of such a huge building. However, I carried with me a new saint for the journey. A down-to-earth person, someone like us, Brother Andre was alert to the signs of the times; he was a guide for the spirit. He remains for us a valuable symbol of that renewal to which Christ invites us all. He was able to thrive under God’s grace; we too can thrive under that same grace.
Photo album (again, hat tip to Fr. Ken for his photos!)