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St. Andre Bessette, born Alfred Bessette, lived a simple life, physically frail but spiritually lively and devoted. He became known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal,” with a prayer life so powerful and a devotion to St. Joseph so deep that throngs of people experienced physical healings after praying with him.
Alfred was born in Quebec, Canada, in poor physical health, and was baptized immediately after birth as his family feared he would only live a few days. He was the eighth of twelve children. He was an orphan by the time he was 12 years old, and had no formal education. He worked as a farmhand, blacksmith, shoemaker and a baker, and traveled to the United States for a few years, working in a factory during the Civil War. Too physically weak to sustain employment, he returned to Canada, and his pastor keenly observed the dedication to faith that Alfred possessed. He encouraged Alfred to discern a vocation to the religious life, and sent him to the Congregation of the Holy Cross with a note that read, “I am sending you a saint.”
Initially the congregation did not accept Alfred due to his physical health. But he gained the assistance of the Archbishop of Montreal and was granted entrance. He took the name Andre, which was the name of his childhood pastor. As he did not have formal education, Andre was assigned to be the doorkeeper. He continued in this duty as he professed his vows, and tended to the needs of all who entered. He also served as a sacristan and did laundry. He lived in a small room near the door, interceding to the statue of St. Joseph outside his window.
Those whom he tended began to experience physical healings after praying with him, and during an epidemic at a local college, Andre volunteered to nurse them. None of the patients died. He was given permission to see people at the trolley station across from the church. The lines grew long, and those he served began to lavish accolades on him. However, he knew that none of the healing was due to himself, but due to the intercession of St. Joseph.
Andre desired to found a shrine to St. Joseph, and saved the money he earned by giving haircuts at five cents apiece, coming up with the $200 needed to build a simple structure. Five years after he opened the Shrine, Brother Andre was released from his duties as a doorkeeper and assigned to the Oratory of St. Joseph. He lived in a small loft above the chapel. When he prayed with others, he urged them to intercede with perseverance and confidence, while remaining open to the will of God.
Pilgrims flocked to the Shrine and waited in lines to see Brother Andre. Plans were made to construct a large basilica, and for the remainder of his life, Brother Andre ministered to the visitors to the shrine. Miracles occurred for those who visited and prayed with him, with thousands attributed to him over the following decades. When he died at age 91, over a million came to pay respects to his body outside the Shrine, in the midst of a harsh Canadian winter, as he lay in state over the course of a week.
The side chapels of the Oratory of St. Joseph are filled with the crutches of many of those healed after encounters with St. Andre. He was beatified in 1982, and was canonized in 2010. The Basilica remains a major pilgrimage site, attracting over 2 million visitors yearly. St. Andre is entombed at the church, his heart on display.
Pope Benedict XVI declared during his canonization, that Andre “lived the beatitude of the pure of heart.”
I can easily find similarity between the spirituality of St. Andre and that of St. Therese: there was no complication or complexity to his faith or devotion to the heart of God. He lived his vocation straightforwardly and humbly, greeting and praying with those who entered the space he so lovingly built and cared for, constantly urging them toward God. He lived and breathed intercession, which stood as a powerful testimony to the work of God in any person willing to trust Him, regardless of physical capacity.