What can we learn today from the gentle, humble "miracle man of Montreal"?
St. André Bessette is one of the more recent saints, as he lived in the 20th century and was canonized in 2010, but he’s still relatively little known today. But that wasn’t the case when he was alive. Although he was an uneducated man who lived a very humble life, Bessette was considered a miracle worker and more than one million people attended his funeral.
Who was “the miracle man of Montreal”? His early life was hardly auspicious. His name at birth was Alfred Bessette, one of 12 children born to a Catholic carpenter and his wife, Isaac and Clothilde Bessette. When he was born, little Alfred was in such ill health that it seemed likely he would die as a baby, as four of his siblings had. His parents decided to have him receive an emergency baptism just in case.
The sickly little boy survived, but he would face many more hardships as a child. His father died in a tragic workplace accident when Alfred was 9, leaving the Bessette family even more impoverished than they had been already. Then his mother died when he was 12.
Alfred lived with foster families for the next several years and tried out different kinds of work, but the ill health of his infancy continued to plague him. He was too physically weak to continue in any of the jobs he tried.
Despite his physical frailty, gentle Alfred possessed a superhuman spiritual strength. People began to notice his incredible devotion and generosity. Among those who noticed was the pastor of his parish.
It was this pastor, Rev. André Provençal, who had the idea to send young Alfred to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal. Famously, he included a note to the superior: “I’m sending you a saint.”
The Holy Cross congregation didn’t know what to do with him at first. His lack of education meant he couldn’t do the teaching work that was their calling. But his physical weakness made him unsuited to manual labor, which was the next obvious option.
So the order rejected him at first, until the archbishop of Montreal intervened on his behalf. At last he was accepted and entered the novitiate of the congregation. He received the religious name of Brother André, and it was by this name that he was known for the rest of his life.
As time passed, he slowly grew famous in Montreal and the surrounding area for his extraordinary faith and ministry of miracles. It seemed that God granted whatever Brother André asked!
He cured over 10,000 people in his lifetime and became widely known as a miracle worker. The oratory he helped to build became a popular pilgrimage destination. When he died, more than one million people filed past his coffin.
What can we learn from his life today? St. André was a witness to Christ in so many ways, but these are just a few ways that we can learn from his heroic virtue.
After struggling to find a role for him, the Holy Cross order decided that Brother André could serve as the porter, or doorkeeper (he also worked as a sacristan, laundry worker and messenger). He had a wonderfully lighthearted attitude about his initial rejection. He was known to quip, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained there 40 years.”
This gentle humor and total humility is so characteristic of him. In a world that tells us to pile up wealth and accolades at all costs, St. André shows us that none of that really matters. What matters is how well we love and serve God and others. What made him a saint was his devotion, his generosity, and his charity, in the old-fashioned sense of Godly love for other people.
It’s a little ironic that a religious order known for its educative mission has for its first (and so far only) canonized saint someone who was not only uneducated but actually illiterate. But there is something really profound about it too, if you stop to think about it. Many saints seem to have been “holy geniuses,” but by contrast, St. André reminds us that holiness is not directly proportional to intelligence or ability: God does not “only give grace to smart people.”
What St. André had in abundance was wisdom, the genuine wisdom that can only come from God: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). This kind of “fear” is better understood as “recognizing the love God has for us and the immensity of his goodness.” St. André is a masterful example of what this kind of holy wisdom can look like.
There are thousands of stories about the miracles St. André brought about through his immense faith. His simple trust in God is a witness to the power of simple, childlike trust in God.
St. André’s life seems to illustrate this verse: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). His physical weakness could not impede the strength and wisdom of his soul. And his vast ministry of miracles illuminates this simple truth: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).