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Brother André: An unlikely hero

In 1904 a humble Montreal monk named Brother André realized a dream: to build a shrine to St. Joseph. Pilgrims flocked there, seeking not just a place of prayer but the touch of Brother André — a man his followers believed could work miracles. A century later the shrine, St. Joseph's Oratory, was attracting two million visitors every year and in 2010 Brother André was declared a saint. CBC Archives looks at his life and legacy.

He was known throughout Quebec and to believers around the world. But the man they called Brother André began life in much humbler circumstances. Born into a large Catholic family in 1845 in the Quebec village of St. Grégoire, Alfred Bessette was a frail child who was orphaned as a boy. This CBC special looks at the man whose mission in life produced St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal.

As a young man Bessette tried working on a farm, as a cobbler and in a bakery. In 1874 he became a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, an order of Catholic priests in Montreal, and took on a new name: Brother André. For 40 nearly years he was the porter and barber at a boys' school run by the congregation, and it was there that his reputation as a healer - even a miracle-worker - took hold.

Brother André counselled his visitors to pray to St. Joseph, and he never took credit for the miraculous cures his visitors ascribed to him. His dream was to build a shrine to St. Joseph on the side of Mount Royal - a project that began with a tiny chapel in 1904. By the time of Brother André's death in 1937, the shrine was a Montreal landmark. In this special report, CBC News tells the story of his life and death. 
. Alfred Bessette was so frail as a newborn that his father, Isaac, feared the baby would die before he could be baptized. He performed an emergency baptism, but the baby survived and was baptized by a priest the following day.
. When Bessette was six years old his father died in a logging accident. Six years later Bessette's mother died of tuberculosis.

. Bessette was frequently sick as a young boy and, therefore, rarely attended school. At age 10 he began suffering from painful stomach problems that would stay with him throughout his life.
. After he was orphaned, Bessette lived with his aunt's family. He tried various jobs before setting out for the United States where he followed the path of many French-Canadians before him: working in the textile mills of New England.

. The young Alfred was devout. Alden Hatch's The Miracle of the Mountain (1959), a book about the life of Brother André, describes a sister's recollection of him: "Ah, if you had known my brother in his youth! On Sunday he passed the greater part of the afternoon praying in the church."
. As a child Bessette demonstrated his penitence by wearing a studded belt under his shirt. His aunt took it away but later discovered him doing the same with an iron chain.

. In 1867 Bessette returned to Quebec. With the guidance of a local priest he sought a place with the Congregation of Holy Cross. "I send you a saint for your community," the priest said in a letter Bessette carried with him to Montreal.
. Bessette began working as a custodian at a school run by the holy order in November 1870. Within weeks he was accepted as a novice, or apprentice monk.

. Bessette's religious name, Brother André, was conferred on him by a presiding priest. Brother André had chosen the name in honour of the priest who sent him to Montreal, Father André Provençal.
. The congregation's leadership was at first reluctant to admit him into the order, fearing his poor health would be a hindrance to them. Brother André took the brave step of pleading with the local bishop, and continued his apprenticeship.

. During his period as a novice, Brother André learned to read and write.
. On Feb. 2, 1874, Brother André was made a lay brother in the Congregation of Holy Cross. The Superior of Novices, upon accepting Brother André as a member, wrote: "If this young man becomes incapable of working, at least he will know how to pray very well."
. As an adult, Brother André stood just five feet tall.

. For nearly 40 years Brother André worked as a porter, or doorman, at the College of Notre-Dame-du-Sacre-Coeur in Côtes-des-Neiges (later a district of Montreal). His job involved much more than simply opening the door to visitors. Every day he rang the wake-up bell, cleaned several rooms, picked up mail at the post office and, weekly, couriered laundry to and from resident pupils' houses.

. It was while Brother Andre worked as a porter that he encountered pupils' parents and lent a sympathetic ear to their problems. His solution was always to pray to St. Joseph.
. Most members of the Congregation of Holy Cross were priests or teachers. Lay brothers contributed to the work of the order by performing the manual labour necessary to keep the school running.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: May 23, 1982
Reporter: Larry Stout
Duration: 2:26

Last updated: January 7, 2014

Page consulted on January 7, 2014

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