Saint Andre Bessette didn’t seem like saint material. He wasn’t from a noble family like St. Francois de Laval. He wasn’t brilliant and well-educated like St. Isaac Jogues. He was a small, sickly baby, the eighth born to a farming family in a small town near Montreal. His frail weakness dogged him all his life, preventing him from attending school or holding down a good job. What set him apart and made him a saint was his trusting devotion to St. Joseph and his deep faith in God.
Saint Andre Bessette image drawn by Katherine Babcock for my Canadian Saints Kids Activity Book.
The Childhood of Alfred Bessette
Alfred Bessette was one of twelve children born to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette. Four of Alfred’s siblings had died in infancy. He was so tiny when he was born on August 9th, 1845 that he was also expected to die, so the cure gave him an emergency baptism the day after his birth.
Both his parents were devout Catholics who did their best to teach their children to pray and work hard. Work hard they had to, as the family struggled with poverty. Despite this, Andre recalled his early years as happy years, filled with great love, especially from his mother.
When Alfred was only nine years old, his father was killed in a lumbering accident. His mother was left to raise the children by herself. Worn out from this, she developed tuberculosis. She was forced to place her children for adoption and, along with Andre, went to live with her sister. She died when Andre was 12.
Alfred remained in the care of his aunt and uncle. He was enrolled in catechism classes at the local parish, under Father Andre. These lessons were the beginning of his devotion to St. Joseph and the Passion of Jesus. His uncle also sent him to school for a time, but Alfred learned only to write his name. Feeling that an orphan didn’t need to be educated, his uncle tried to get Alfred working on the farm. However, Alfred didn’t have the physical strength to do this.
Next, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. Unfortunately, he was no better suited to shoemaking than he was to farming. Job after job followed, with Alfred’s poor health or physical frailty always leaving him unsuitable for the work. He suffered frequently from indigestion or stomach issues.
While his his work continually changed, Alfred held onto his faith. Even as a child, his aunt noticed the penances he practiced—sleeping on the floor or wearing a leather belt pierced with tacks around his waist. His aunt forbade these penances in fear of his already poor health. Alfred never disobeyed her; he merely found other methods of penance. Brother Andre Marie explains, “Some may think these penances were just childish excess which would fade away with maturity, but they continued throughout his lifetime, making him a truly mortified religious.”
At age 18, Alfred moved to the States to work in the textile mills. He hoped the milder climate would suit his poor health better. For the next four years, he moved across the States, alternating between higher-paying factory jobs and lower-paying farm jobs. He continued to spend much of his spare time in prayer. Just after Confederation in 1867, Alfred returned to Canada.
Becoming Brother Andre Bessette
Upon his return to Canada, Alfred went to visit his old spiritual director, Father Andre. The priest suggested Alfred apply to join the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. This teaching order has established a school in Montreal at the request of the bishop. Alfred was impressed, although a bit intimidated, by the priests and their order. They were less sure of him, with his physical frailty and lack of academic training.
Alfred joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1870 as a novice. Father Andre wrote a letter of reference to the superior, telling him, “I am sending you a saint.” Alfred took the name of Brother Andre and worked hard at this new job. He was well-liked by his superiors and respected by the brothers. He even learned to read, and spent much time reading the Bible and the lives of the saints. He also memorized large portions of Scripture.
However, Brother Andre’s poor health continued to stalk him. Despite his academic and religious progress, his superiors were doubtful about his suitability for religious life. His vows were put off. Brother Andre appealed to the bishop, who gave him permission to take his vows.
On August 22, 1872, Brother Andre officially joined the Congregation. He was then sent to Notre Dame College in Montreal, where he became the porter or doorkeeper.
His new duties including answering the door to anyone who visited the school, waking the boys for their lessons, and delivering mail. He also served as sacristan, gave the boys haircuts, and helped with the laundry. In his little room by the door, he spent much time in prayer. When one of the boys was sick, Brother Andre visited, anointing the boy with holy oil and praying for him. Word began to spread of the miracles worked by his prayers.
The Miracle Man of Montreal
Soon, people outside the school were coming to Brother Andre to ask his intercession for their problems. A woman with rheumatism came to him, assisted by two men because her disease left her unable to walk on her own. Brother Andre was scrubbing the floors and only said to the men helping her, “Let her walk.” She left unassisted.
On another occasion, Brother Andre noticed that a man visiting his son at school was deeply worried. When the man confided that his wife was ill, Brother Andre told him not to worry because she was fine. Knowing that his wife had been ill for many years, the man doubted Brother Andre—until he went home to find it true.
Brother Andre steadfastly refused to take credit for any of the miracles. He frequently said, “I do not cure. St. Joseph cures.” He encouraged people to trust in St. Joseph and ask for his intercession. People began to line up outside the school, waiting to see Brother Andre and ask for his prayers. This aroused the anger of some school parents, health authorities, and even school officials, who worried about all the people—many of them ill—showing up to see the doorkeeper.
The bishop asked to speak to Brother Andre. When he asked Brother Andre if he would give up his healing ministry out of obedience, Brother Andre answered yes. The bishop then gave his permission for Brother Andre to continue. If this work was not of God, he said, it would end on its own. Instead, his ministry grew, and slowly, his enemies were won over, just as the Bishop had been.
Although Brother Andre was given credit for many healings, he often told people, “Do not seek to have your trials removed; ask rather for the grace to bear them well.” He said that suffering brings us closer to Jesus on the cross. He had long experience in uniting his own poor health to Jesus’ Passion.
An Oratory for St. Joseph
In 1904, Brother Andre requested permission to build a chapel for St. Joseph. This had been his dream for many years. The bishop granted his permission, but wouldn’t allow Brother Andre to go into debt to built the chapel. And so Brother Andre began to pray and to collect money. He began with the nickels he charged for the boys’ haircuts.
The first chapel on Mount Royal was a small shelter only 15 feet by 18 feet. Brother Andre went there frequently to pray. Others began to make the trip to the chapel to pray as well, and slowly donations came in to expand the building. In 1909, the shrine was big enough to require a full-time caretaker. Brother Andre was given the job, after serving as school doorkeeper for forty years.
In 1924, construction began on a magnificent oratory at the shrine. When funds ran out because of the depression, Brother Andre turned again to St. Joseph. Donations continued to arrive to support the work, which went on until the Oratory’s completion in 1955.
Unfortunately, Brother Andre didn’t see the completion of his project. He died in 1937 when he was 91 years old. He was beatified in 1982 by Pope Saint John Paul II and canonized in 2010 by Pope Benedict XIV. Saint Andre Bessette’s feast day is January 6.
Guided by a deep faith and devotion to Saint Joseph, he dedicated his life to praying, serving the poor, welcoming strangers, healing the sick and comforting the suffering. To this day, his memory remains an important witness to all Canadians of faith and love. ~ Bishop Pierre Morissette of Saint-Jérôme
His body was entombed at the Oratory he worked so hard to build. Today, St. Joseph’s Oratory is the world’s largest shrine to Jesus’ foster father and a world-famous pilgrimage destination.
Saint Andre Bessette, pray for us.
Kids can learn more about Saint Andre Bessette and five other saints through fun activities in my Canadian Saints Kids Activity Book. This book includes a two-page biography of each saint to draw your child into their lives. Colouring pages by Katherine Babcock help kids picture each of the saints. Children will further engage in reflecting on these saints and their legacy through word puzzles, quotes, drawing and writing prompts, reflection questions, mazes, and other hands-on activities.