The life and times of Canada's newest saint

Loreen Pindera on the humble Montrealer who is now Saint Andre.

In his home province of Quebec, the man known as Brother André was already something akin to a saint by the time of his death in January 1937.

At that time, nearly a million people braved freezing rain to make the steep climb up to St. Joseph's Oratory to pay their last respects to the "miracle man of Mount Royal."

On Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI makes it official, with the canonization of Canada's first native-born male saint, now to be known as Saint Brother André.

Brother Andre, in an undated photo from St. Joseph's Oratory, taken in his later years. (Reuters)

A pious, humble man who never considered himself a healer, Brother André is nonetheless credited with performing 125,000 cures by those who have prayed for his intercession. These ranged from longed-for pregnancies to the healing of a man with cancer, an act officially recognized as a miracle by the Vatican and which led to Brother Andre's beatification in 1982.

To non-believers, much of this talk of healings is the stuff of hocus-pocus or quackery. Particularly as many of these cures don't involve him directly but rather prayer medallions bearing his likeness, or notes left at the foot of a statue of St. Joseph in the gargantuan shrine built at Brother André's behest.

What's more, this talk of miracles hardly seems to fit today's more secular Quebec, with its near-empty pews and huge antipathy towards its Catholic past.

Indeed, Brother André's own order, the Holy Cross, is under fire for the role of some of its leaders in covering up the sexual abuse of students at the very college where he served four decades as a porter.

A different church

Still, there is little doubt that Brother André is revered here in Quebec, if not quite as a saint, then certainly as a mythic hero.

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''People know that he lived in a church very different from the one we have now, long before the Quiet Revolution,'' allows Father Claude Grou, rector of St. Joseph's, the spectacular Montreal oratory founded largely as a testament to Brother André's unswerving faith.

''But there seems to be a feeling that if there is to be a saint among us, it should be this type of simple man, always listening to the needs of others, always ready to go out of his way to help other people.

"That's why people are so enthusiastic about the canonization of Brother André. He doesn't represent the Church as a huge structure but the Church as people who love each other."

A 'loser'

Born Alfred Bessette in the farming village of St. Grégoire d'Iberville in 1845, he was one of 12 children. Plagued by stomach problems his whole life, he barely went to school.

His father was killed by a fallen tree when Bessette was nine, and his mother died of tuberculosis while he was still a teenager. Like so many poor, rural Quebecers without a trade, he went to New England to find odd jobs as a factory hand and farm labourer.

St. Joseph's Oratory, which Brother Andre helped found by contributing $200, money he had accumulated by cutting hair, to the initial wooden shrine on the site of the current basilica. (Canadian Press)

''He was, humanly speaking, a 'loser,'" says Father Robert Choquette, the member of the Holy Cross order who — until his retirement in 2003 as vice-postulator — shepherded the case for André's sainthood through the Vatican. "But he got from his mother the gift of prayer and of faith."

Bessette returned to Canada after Confederation in 1867 and joined the Holy Cross order as a religious brother, taking the name André.

The illiterate young man was given the job as a porter at Collège Notre Dame, at the foot of Mount Royal, the imposing outcrop that overlooks Montreal.

Bessette's reputation as a healer began innocently, Father Choquette said. Helping out in the infirmary one day, he ordered a student out of bed.

A doctor rebuked him but, checking on the boy, found him cured and from there, word of André's reputation spread.

On display

Despite the dismissal of his powers by medical experts of the day, the poor and the sick flocked to the porter —sometimes at the rate of 700 a day.

Brother André took no credit for those who claimed he cured them and, instead, urged them to help him build a shrine to St. Joseph, the patron saint of French Canada, on a piece of land the order had purchased on Mount Royal.


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Completed long after his death from donations, small and large, that continued to pour in, today St. Joseph's Oratory is among the largest basilicas in the world — its dome visible from far beyond Montreal's city limits.

Two million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to the oratory, some climbing the 283 steps on their knees.

Inside, an elevator whisks people to the floor where Brother André's heart is on permanent display. One storey below, thousands of well-worn crutches and grimy, well-handled canes hang outside his crypt, testament to those who claim to have been cured by him during his lifetime.

Even today, more than 70 years after his death, hundreds of letters and emails arrive each week from people claiming to have been healed through their faith in Brother André.

Religious statuettes of Brother Andre are seen in the gift shop at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Feb. 19, 2010. (Reuters)

In 1999, for example, Father Choquette learned of a 10-year-old Quebec boy who had been thrown from a car and left in an apparently irreversible coma.

''The doctors said there was no way he could survive, and even if he did, his quality of life would be almost nil,'' said Father Grou.

Relatives prayed to Brother André, anointing the boy with oil bought at the oratory.

Almost instantaneously, Father Grou said, the boy's brain began to function normally again. ''In a fairly short time, the danger of death disappeared and doctors discovered there would be no major brain damage. 'In fact, now the boy is a young man and he is in very good health.''

This young boy's recovery confounded medical experts both in Montreal and in Rome, and it is this cure that Benedict XVI recognized as the miracle required to elevate André to sainthood.

Today, this young man and his family are among the 5,000 or so Quebecers who will be at the Vatican for Brother André's canonization on Sunday. But they are insisting on anonymity, something the humble porter would have completely understood, even if he was unable to achieve it in his lifetime and thereafter.