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Saint Andre Bessette: The miracle man of Montreal

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How a sickly, uneducated man built one of the largest churches in North America and healed thousands through the intercession of Saint Joseph

Perched above Montreal in Canada, Saint Joseph’s Oratory stands proudly over the horizon. It is a monolith, but a beautiful one, with its famous green copper dome serving as a landmark of the French-Canadian city. It is a church, noticeably so in architecture, and an icon of New World faith and persistence. This isn’t because the Oratory is one of the largest churches in North America, but because it was the work of one of the smallest saints. Saint Andre of Montreal, or Brother Andre as his brothers in the Congregation of Holy Cross lovingly call him, is to thank for this icon of Canadian Catholicism. This is his story.

The making of a brother

Andre was born into a simple family. He was not, by any imagination, a wealthy man. His father was a carpenter who provided for eight children (he had fathered 12, but four had not grown past infancy). At his birth, it seemed as though Andre himself might have a short earthly life. He was born very sickly and given an emergency baptism as he entered the world. Though he lived to be 91, Andre never quite grew out of his sickliness – for the entirety of his life, he was always frail.

As a result of his family’s simple means and his weak health, Andre never grew much in terms of his education. He received schooling from his mother until her death when he was 12, three years after the death of his father. Young, weak, and orphaned, Andre grew in faith and heart, and desired to enter religious life. At first, it seemed as though his lack of education would keep him from a religious vocation. His parish priest intervened, however, sending Andre to the Congregation of Holy Cross with a note that read, “I am sending you a saint.” At the age of 28, Andre made final vows with the Congregation and fulfilled his dream of becoming a brother.

Ite ad Joseph

The Congregation of Holy Cross is primarily an educative order, and so Brother Andre was stationed at a school in Montreal. Due to his lack of education, he was unable to serve as a teacher. Instead, Brother Andre worked as a doorman, keeping clean the entrance of the school, providing hospitality for teachers and students as they entered, and staring out the window to a plot of land opposite the schoolhouse. He dreamed of a day when that land might hold a shrine to Saint Joseph.

Brother Andre dreamed this because he held a very special love for the earthly father of Jesus, and also because he believed Saint Joseph did not receive enough recognition or veneration. To Brother Andre, Saint Joseph was an icon of masculinity, courage, and love for the son of God. However, it seemed that veneration was only ever shown to two members of the Holy Family. Brother Andre hoped to expand recognition to include the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.

Eventually, Brother Andre convinced the provincial to buy the land opposite the school, where he was permitted to build a small chapel in honor of St. Joseph. That chapel wasn’t enough for Brother Andre, however. It only had space enough for a handful of people. So, Brother Andre began fundraising for a massive church – a shrine which would become the largest church in North America at the time of its completion. In 1924, the St. Joseph’s Oratory was completed, and thousands of pilgrims began to come annually to venerate Saint Joseph and seek his intercession. They came also to meet with Brother Andre – for the doorkeeper had created quite a commotion with a reputation as a miracle man.

The ministry of miracles

It began small, with his ministry as a doorkeeper. As Brother Andre would interact with the students and teachers, he learned about their problems: illnesses, worries, family stresses. He would pray for them, and instruct them to seek the intercession of Saint Joseph. Slowly, people began to realize that, when Brother Andre prayed for a person in need and directed them to Saint Joseph, they got better. Word spread, and more and more people began to seek out Brother Andre and the miracles that followed him. As a result, Brother Andre’s superior allowed him to hold “office hours,” times when the faithful in need could visit Brother Andre at the Oratory and ask for his prayers and advice. To this day, St. Joseph’s Oratory displays the hundreds of crutches left by those healed through the intercession of Brother Andre and Saint Joseph.

Saint Andre of Montreal

When Brother Andre died at the age of 91, more than a million people flocked to St. Joseph’s Oratory to pay their respects. The miracle man of Montreal was so beloved that these men, women, and children braved Canadian winter weather for hours simply to spend some final moments with the body of the saint. His remains were placed permanently in the Lower Basilica of the Oratory, so that pilgrims can pay their respects and seek his intercession to this day. Beatified by St. John Paul II in 1982, and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Brother Andre became the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Perhaps what is most beautiful about Saint Andre’s story is his incredible humility. The simple man sought his ministry not for himself, but for his love for Saint Joseph. It was by the path of his inspiring veneration of Jesus’ father on earth that Christ chose to raise Andre to the altars. As a result, Brother Andre encourages us to this day to “Ite ad Joseph” – Go to Joseph.

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