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Have Faith: Canada’s St. André Bessette

November 30, 2010 by  
Filed under lifestyle, Special Features


Frere_Andre_1920The Catholic Church has become a punchline. People hear ‘priest’ and they interpret ‘pedophile.’ Through scandals of corruption and an estimated worth of somewhere between one and two billion dollars, the Vatican is despised by many, including a lot of Catholics.

It is time to get creative and dig a little deeper for the truth that can supposedly set us free. Jesus said in John 8:31 and 32 that, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Is the Vatican really holding God’s teachings? Are the priests acting like true disciples? Maybe not, but there are still role models scattered throughout Catholicism that can teach us universal maxims that can help us discover true happiness.

One of those role models is the recently canonized St. André Bessette. Seventy-three years after his death, he still gives Catholics a reason to be proud of their religion.

André was born into poverty in Mont-Gregoire, Que. in 1845 and died in Montreal in 1837. Many people are poor but not many people give themselves to religion like André did.

André was a good representative of his religion. He was a Catholic born into poverty but his spirituality made his weak body gain a strong heart. Instead of falling through the cracks, he planted his spiritual seed with God. Since he was so low on the social scale, his spiritual roots were deeper and grew stronger than that of others. It all started out with prayer, then came the dream.

André worked as a Brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross for over half a century. He washed their floors, he ran their errands, he cut their hair. He did the best a functioning illiterate could do at a congregation of teaching Brothers to be able to stay and pray. Eventually he began helping people with their problems, and thousands claimed to be healed by André. He modestly claimed that “God does the healing, I’m just his pet dog.” Not everyone needs to devote their life to helping others, but it wouldn’t hurt if a few more did.

Almost a century after his death, the St. Joseph’s Oratory, which André founded, continues to tower over the city of Montreal and welcomes over two million people each year.

The Oratory offers a glimpse into what people can accomplish, even if they are illiterate and frail. At 4 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2010, 1,500 people squeezed into the church – which only seats 1,000 – to watch André be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, live from the Vatican. Five thousand faithful Canadians flew to the Eternal City to rejoice in the celebration. Rev.Charles Corso, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross was astounded: “The feeling was absolute exuberance – it was like a Canadian athlete defying all odds and winning an Olympic gold medal.”

André certainly defied the odds. As a boy, André was unable to attend school regularly because he suffered from poor health. His father was crushed by a tree and died when André was very young. By the age of 12, both his mother and father passed away. André once said, “I rarely prayed for my mother but I often prayed to her.” He loved his mother because she tried her best to keep her large family together and care for them until she died. André would go on to make her very proud.

We often doubt our faith but when we hear stories like this, it is important to believe again. It is even more important to find out what helped these unfortunates overcome their adversity. In André’s case it was prayer, faith and hard work.

After his mother’s death, André stayed with various family members and friends until the age of 16. In those days, this age was old enough to start earning a living. Like many Quebec natives during the 1870s, manual labour was the main source of employment. But the 16-year-old was frail, which made it difficult for him to earn an income.

While André was living in Rev. André Provencale’s Rectory, the priest noticed the young André’s passion for prayer. Rev. Provencale sent André with a letter of recommendation to the Congregation of Holy Cross at College Notre Dame in Montreal. Because André was illiterate, he was not able to teach. Rev. Provencale knew André couldn’t teach like a Brother, but he could pray like one.

Over a century before André’s canonizing, whether through prophecy or coincidence, Rev. Provencale wrote in a letter, “I am sending you a saint.” For the next 40 years, André worked as a doorman, which gave him a lot of time between greeting parents and visitors to pray. It wasn’t the best job but, as they say, you will never value anything if you don’t make sacrifices.

Parents and visitors started bringing their problems to André. He was a simple man to whom they could open up. He would pray for them and people started to recover quickly. The problems were varied but the solutions were usually the same – pray to St. Joseph, he would say. Small lineups soon turned into crowds of sick people waiting to receive André’s blessing. His faith was 50 years in the making, so naturally he was good at it; he wasn’t just waving a wand around. The Brothers built a little chapel for André and hundreds began lining up daily.

His days were spent with the sick at the Oratory and his nights were spent visiting those whom could not make it to the Oratory. André is said to have tended to the needs of over 125,000 people throughout his life. Rev. Corso said, “He spent his whole life talking to people about God and talking to God about people.”

He presented many sick visitors with medals of St. Joseph and anointed them with oil from an oil lamp that burned in the college’s chapel next to a statue of St Joseph. St. André always insisted that the healing was the work of St. Joseph and not himself. St. André said, “The medallion and the oil are an exterior demonstration of the interior faith … for the person who is coming forward you must have an openness to the possibility that God can help. That is faith.”

André lived off not much more than bread and water his entire life. There is humble and then there is the kind of humble that lives on in history books: true selfless heroes.

When André passed away, the Bishop of Montreal decided to remove André’s heart and preserve it in the Oratory so that people could be close to his essence; a ritual that dates back to the Middle Ages. In 1978, thieves stole the container that held the heart. Nine months later, an anonymous tip led police to an abandoned apartment on the south shore of Montreal. Police found the container with the heart still inside and returned it to the Oratory. It is one of the many interesting sites at the Oratory, along with the wall of canes and crutches left by those who were healed.

With thousands of people claiming that André healed them, scientist Mario Lachapelle, who holds a PhD in medical and biological research, is credited with proving to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints through his master’s thesis that André was indeed a saint. A former priest, Lachapelle is the assistant general of the Holy Cross Congregation in Rome. The Vatican granted canonization to André after Lachapelle provided evidence that he had performed two confirmed miracles.

In 1958, Joseph Audino recovered from later stages of terminal cancer after praying to André. In 1999, a Quebec boy was hit by a car and was left in a permanent coma with barely any signs of life. Doctors told relatives that their boy would remain in this state until his death. The boy’s relatives began praying to André and anointed him with the oil from the Oratory. The boy came out of the coma and made a full recovery. Sources on the ground in Rome say the young man was there for the canonizing.

•  St. André Bessette: Born 1845, Died 1937
•  Canonized on Oct. 17, 2010
•  St Joseph’s Oratory is the largest church in Canada and largest basilica dedicated to St. Joseph.
•  Population of Montreal in 1937: 300,000
•  Number of people who attended St. André’s funeral: 1 million


One Response to “Have Faith: Canada’s St. André Bessette”

  1. Jan Farrell on July 16th, 2011 9:33 pm

    Having just read the story of St. Andre who was canonised the same day as the 1st Australian Saint, St. Mary of the Cross Mckillop I wondered if I could have prayers for a desperate situation. My great grandson Paul who is nearly 3 weeks old has a heart condition. He has already had 3 operations, and it looks like he will not survive. Could I ask everyone to pray for this little boy that he will be healed? Thank you.

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