Father Higgins: Frere André, the “Miracle-Man” of Montreal
Compiled and reposted with permission from Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish, Newton MA
Part I – Who Was Frere André?
“Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.”St. James
“For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much…” This Scripture verse is going to be the underlying theme for our Parish Lenten Mission series this year. Our Mission is entitled “Frere André (Brother André): The Miracle Man of Montreal.” Who was Frere André?
Frere André Bessette was a religious Brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross, C.S.C. (Perhaps we know this Congregation best for its University of Notre Dame in Indiana.) He lived from August 9th, 1845, to January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, 1937. He was 91 years-old. He entered the religious life with Holy Cross in November, 1870, at the College Notre-Dame in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. As a novice he was put to work as a porter–that is, the brother who answers the door, greets all visitors, and conveys the messages. The simplest work. No special skill needed. A role that can be filled by a brother who is not considered fit for any other task. The novice brother Bessette was to retain this lowly office for the rest of his life.
It was with misgiving that Holy Cross accepted him into their community at all. His health was too poor. Moreover he had no education, no intellectual aptitude, no cultivation. In short, nothing to recommend him as an asset to a congregation dedicated to education as part of its fundamental mission.
What he had though was a simple, strong Catholic faith which he had received from the milieu of the farm people of Quebec. It was a Catholic faith tested by poverty, by ill-health, by hunger, by being orphaned as a young boy, by the toil of migrant work in the United States. At the age of 25 Alfred Bessette came to the Congregation of Holy Cross with a faith-life already deeply marked by the Cross. And within that Catholic faith-life so marked by the Cross he nurtured a special devotion and friendship with St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus Our Lord.
The love and friendship with St. Joseph was what he shared with the many visitors with whom he talked in his office as porter. People would tell him their problems, unburdening themselves to a sympathetic ear. They would ask for prayers. He would always tell them: Pray to St. Joseph (“Priez St. Joseph”).
Frere André also had the inspired dream that the College should build a chapel in honor of St. Joseph. At first, he was unable to convince his Superior. Finally, after six years, the Superior gave his permission and the Brother began trying to raise money for it. Two years later a modest chapel of St. Joseph was opened. This was the inauspicious beginning for the now magnificent Shrine in Montreal of St. Joseph’s Oratory (L’Oratoire St. Joseph). The Oratory is still a popular place of pilgrimage today: a stark contrast to the mass unbelief and repudiation of Catholicism which has taken hold in oncefervently Catholic French Quebec.
By the time of his taking perpetual vows in 1874, Frere André had begun to acquire an unsought reputation as a miracle-man for the power of his prayers of intercession for the sick. He always credited the power of St. Joseph’s prayers for any favors received or miraculous cures. But people trusted the prayers of St. Joseph and Frere André. They sought him out, in greater and greater numbers. Upon his death in January, 1937, over one million people turned out to pay their respects. It was a mass-mourning such as Canada had never seen. And it extended into the United States where Frere André’s was well-known. Special trains were put at the disposal of visitors from the states of Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont to bring them to Montreal for the funeral.
During the conferences of this Lenten Mission we shall focus on the person of Frere André, who is now a canonized Saint of the Church. But we shall also consider the background of the times in which he lived and look for insights into the unbelief of our own day with the aim of avoiding its traps. Let us ask Frere André to intercede with his friend St. Joseph that we may gain good spiritual fruit from our Mission.
Part II – Frere Andre’s World of French Canada
“For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble. But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the strong. And the base things of the world and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen: and things that are not, that He bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in His sight.”I Corinthians 1:26-29
This is the Second Conference in our Parish Lenten Mission series, “Frere André, the Miracle Man of Montreal”. Last week we were introduced to the Holy Cross Brother André Bessette, who filled the lowly office of portier, the porter, at the Congregation’s College Notre Dame in Montreal for decades. His was a hidden life and a seemingly insignificant life. And yet, when he died on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, 1937, at the age of 91, over a million people turned out to pay their respects over the days of mourning. It was a spectacle of mass-mourning such as Canada had never seen, and it reached across the border into the United States, particularly the New England states. So something quite mysterious was going on in the life of this man, which surfaced so dramatically upon his death. I suggest to you that in Frere André we see an example of the fulfillment of these verses from First Corinthians, about how God chooses what is foolish, weak, base and contemptible in the eyes of the world in order to overturn all worldly expectations, and thereby show forth His divine power precisely from where it was least expected to come.
Alfred (the future “Frere André”) Bessette was to be sure an unprepossessing man: uneducated, uncultivated, suffering from all of the effects of chronic poverty in his physical person. But at the same time we might say he also embodied the “marginalization”, if you will, of a large mass of the Catholic people of French Canada in that day.
The French Canadians, the “Québecois”, were a conquered people–the descendants of the French colonists of New France who had been overwhelmed by the British military invasion of Quebec during the French and Indian War (1756-1763) and permanently cut off from France thereafter. In addition, after the American Revolution, British Loyalist refugees from the Thirteen Colonies found refuge in Canada and were rewarded with generous land-grants by the British Crown. In 1845, when Alfred Bessette was born, Canada was known as British North America. The situation of the French Canadians in the 1800s is comparable, I think, to that of the Irish, also a conquered people under the British. In both places you had a large surplus rural population trying to eke out its living Frere André’s father Isaac was a construction worker and carpenter, supporting a family of ten children (Alfred/Frere André was the 8th child): he died cutting wood in the forest when Alfred was 10. His mother Clotilde died of tuberculosis two years later. The poor household was immediately dissolved: the younger children split up among relatives in the extended family. As an adolescent youth Alfred was sent out to make his way in the world, however he could.
We are familiar with the flood of Irish immigration into the United States in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1840s. There was also a flood of French Canadian immigration into the United States, particularly into New England seeking work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the 1900s there were as many French Canadians living in New England as in the whole of Quebec. Alfred Bessette joined this immigration.
We know nothing of the years of his life as a migrant worker in New England, although we know a great deal about the harsh working conditions at that time. He returned to Quebec in 1867, the year Canada became a Dominion instead of a colony. He was 22, still on his own as an unskilled worker. He settled in the village of Saint-Césaire, where he was acquainted with the parish priest there, Fr. André Provençal. Under the guidance of this priest, a new chapter of his life was to begin.
Part III – The Saints Behind the Saints
“The LORD hath done great things for us: we are become joyful. Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as a stream in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going, they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming, they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves.”Psalm 125:3-7
This Psalm of David, which treats of the joy of the captive Jews upon their return from Babylon, is accommodated by the Church to express the rejoicing of the just upon their entry into Heaven. It is therefore a Psalm which expresses the redemption of mankind. It is an appropriate Psalm to introduce our Conference for tonight which is entitled: “The Saints Behind The Saints”. In the end, nobody gets to Heaven without help from the Communion of Saints on earth. We are meant to be vessels of grace for one another, and God in His dispensations arranges the intersections of our lives accordingly. This is an important awareness to protect us against a stark and reductive idea of God’s election, as if it were a plucking of individual souls here and there while allowing the mass of men to sink into damnation. The actual record of sanctity shows something else altogether.
Frere André Bessette was revered in his lifetime as a miracle-man, un faiseur des miracles, a “thaumaturge”. People had great faith in his prayers. He is now a canonized Saint of the Catholic Church.
But we can see the human links which shaped him and enabled God to fill him with that extra unction which transformed him into “Frere André”. I would like to focus on three human links–two individuals, and one collectivity. They are: Father André Provençal, the Parish Priest of Saint-Césaire, who sponsored him for Holy Cross, his mother Clotilde Bessette, who died when he was 12 years-old, and the faithful Catholic people of French Canada, who shaped his world, both in Quebec and in the U.S. New England migration.
Who was Fr. André Provençal? It would seem he was a hard-working parish priest in a rural community, esteemed by his parishioners as a true man of God. He was a “builder”, presiding over the building of a new parish church, a convent, and a “commercial college” for boys.
Fr. Provençal took notice of the young man Bessette who hung around the parish house, available for odd jobs and spending a great deal of time praying in church. He took Alfred under his wing, mentored him and wrote the strong letter which got him in the door with Holy Cross. Fr. Provençal wrote to the college authorities: “I am sending you a saint…”
Clotilde Bessette was a brief presence in the life of child Alfred, but he remembered her motherlove with great feeling for the whole of his long life. He remembered her sweetness to him. As Frere André recalled: “Probably due to the fact that I was the most sickly, my mother showed more affection to me than to the other children and also took greater care of me. She kissed me more often than I deserved…And I, also, how I loved her!” It was thanks to his mother that he got his deep inclination to be devoted to Saint Joseph. Near the end of his life, he revealed: “I’ve rarely prayed for my mother, but I’ve often prayed to her.”
Finally, we must take a look at the collective faith-world of Catholic French Canada. We cannot adequately estimate the great advantage of being in a society infused with the ethos of Catholic faith and practice, as Quebec was at this time. Was it a perfect society? No. Was everybody a model Catholic? Of course not! Were there no counter-examples, shades of dark to challenge the light? No doubt there were plenty. But it is easier, far easier to learn how to become a Saint in a world where the Catholic imagination is so rich, so tangible, so re-assuring. The sanctity of Frere André is in a real sense an expression of the sanctity of so many just souls of French Canada, who both lived in his day and preceded him, and who now rejoice with Him in the land of Heaven.
Sanctity, you see, is not a divine work of splendid isolation. It comes out of our most familiar human bonds. These are the Saints behind the Saints.
Part IV – The Hidden Silence of St. Joseph
“A faithful man shall be greatly praised; and he that is the keeper of his Lord, shall be glorified.” –Proverbs 28 (Little Chapter for the Office of Vespers, Feast of St. Joseph)
It is a surprise for us, looking back from our vantage point, to realize just how long it took for Devotion to St. Joseph to develop in the life of the Catholic Church. It was in 1621 that Pope Gregory XV extended the observance of a Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th (piously believed to be the date of his death) to the whole Church. In 1870, the year our protagonist entered the Congregation of Holy Cross and took the name in religion “André”, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph to be “Patron and Protector of the universal (i.e., the “Catholic”) Church.
St. Joseph had long been the Patron Saint of French Canada, and, as a child, Frere André had taken to heart a most strong and tender filial devotion to St. Joseph through the example of his mother Clotilde. St. Joseph: the great and and silent Saint who plays such a crucial role in story of our Redemption, and yet we hear no word from him in the Gospel Books. God was to show His divine power through Frere André Bessette by means of the Holy Cross Brother hiding himself in the silence of St. Joseph.
Let us see how this began to unfold. Frere André, as Brother Porter for the College, had some very simple, tedious duties. He opened the door, he cleaned, he said his prescribed prayers, and he kept to his place on the bottom rung of the Community. One day, while watching over patients at the College infirmary he came to the bed of a boy who had been lying there for several days under strict doctor’s orders. He was running a dangerous fever.
“Why are you being so lazy,” the Brother asked the boy. He replied, “But I’m sick.” – “No, you’re not … Why don’t you go and play with the others?” At this, the boy, feeling a sudden strength, got up from his sick bed, and rejoined his friends, to the astonishment of everybody. The boy was thoroughly examined by a doctor. He was watched. Everyone expected a relapse. But there was none. The sick boy had been instantaneously cured and no-one knew how.
What was the Community’s reaction to this healing? They came down on Brother Porter like a ton of bricks. How dare he! Who did he think he was! And this was just the opener.
As anyone who has ever even tried religious life or seminary life knows, often enough you can be in for some very rough treatment from other members of your community, especially if they consider you a little odd or “a bit much”. And so it was for Frere André.
Sometimes, instead of telling sick people bluntly that they were cured, the Porter told them to take some oil which had burned under a St. Joseph statue–“St. Joseph’s oil” he called it–and to rub their sick limbs or wounds with it.
This earned him the derisive label from his Community Brothers of “Old Greaser”, or “Old Smearer”. If St. Joseph were really going to work miracles in their day through someone, why would he use that one? The question answered itself, didn’t it? It was all too ridiculous!
One day, in the Year 1884 (fourteen years after Frere André had been in religious life), two men came in carrying a woman crippled with rheumatism. Frere André was busy scrubbing the floor at the entrance to the College. She begged to see the Brother in order that he might cure her. Frere André did not address her. Instead, he said to the two men carrying her: “Let her walk by herself.” The woman managed to walk one step on her own, then another, and another. The whole time Frere André kept on scrubbing the floor. After a while, he finally spoke to the woman: “You’re no longer sick. You can go home now.” And she did–completely cured.
Part V – He Hath Done All Things Well
“And they bring to Jesus one deaf and mute: and they besought Him that He would lay His hand upon him. And taking him from the multitude apart, He put His fingers into his ears: and spitting He touched his tongue. And looking up to Heaven, He groaned and said to him: Ephpheta, which is, Be thou opened. And immediately his ears were opened and the string of his tongue was loosed and he spoke right. And He charged them that they should tell no man. But the more He charged them, so much the more a great deal did they publish it. And so much the more did they wonder, saying: He hath done all things well. He hath made both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”St. Mark 7:32-37
By 1890, twenty years after Alfred Bessette had taken the name-in-religion “André”, his reputation had spread far and wide that he was a miracle-man, un faiseur des miracles! In spite of the derision from within his own Community, the visitors seeking Frere André kept coming in ever greater numbers. Some parents of the school-boys lodged a protest with the College authorities: all of these sick people coming to see Frere André were likely vectors of infection for their children, they claimed with indignation. They demanded it be stopped!
An ingenious solution was found. In 1893, when a new tram-way line was built, linking downtown Montreal to the small neighborhood of Cote-des-Neiges, the Superior of the College negotiated with the authorities to have a stop near the school. When this happened, they sent Frere André down to the tramway stop to receive his visitors apart from the College. This was his reception room for a dozen years until he had a new one built by the first small chapel of the Oratoire Saint Joseph.
At this point in our story we do well to consider the place of miracles in God’s Divine Providence. I draw here from the book Brother André by the Montreal priest Jean-Guy Dubuc, published in English translation in 1999. We read in the Gospel Books how Jesus was a great worker of miracles. Even His enemies had to concede that He performed some extraordinary things which could not be explained.
Why did He do them? He did them at once to reward the faith which had already been shown and to express the charity of God. Fr. Dubuc explains:
Miracles can be fully understood—that is, perceived as acts of God’s love—only by those who believe in Him. Unbelievers can see only conjuring tricks or sorry acts of magic, all more or less spectacular or comprehensible. For one has to be prepared, to be readied for the sign, in order to recognize it when it appears and to understand its meaning…As related in the Gospels, Jesus’ miracles always linked the human, indeed the humane, to the Divine. They were invoked by a cry for help, expressed directly by persons in need or by others on their behalf. Thus initially, it is love for a person that triggers divine intervention. But also, Jesus’ actions are either preceded or followed by an act of faith. Miracles, being visible signs of a supernatural presence, can be accepted fully for what they are only in a context of faith. Without faith, they cannot be recognized, much less understood. A miracle is a sign directed exclusively to the faithful. A miracle is not a right that can be claimed. It is always an exceptional and gratuitous favor.
It is with this understanding that we should approach the miraculous in Frere André’s life. And then we can see just how abundantly the Divine Pity was poured out in answer to the Brother’s compassionate prayer for others.
Part VI – The Grain of Wheat That Dies
“But Jesus answered them, saying: The hour is come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it and he that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal.”St. John 12:23-25
Our Lord spoke these words on Palm Sunday, just after He had made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They are words which fill us with emotion as we understand how Jesus is looking into the depths of His Passion. The grain of wheat that dies and is buried in the earth, which then bringeth forth much fruit, is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself in His Death and Resurrection. The grain of wheat that dies in order to bring forth more abundant life is also a key image of our own Christian lives. Eternity is contained within our “grain-of-wheat”. It is only by our dying that it can be released.
We have been considering in our Conferences over the past six Lenten Fridays how God used the Holy Cross Brother André Bessette (who held only the lowly office of the door-answerer in his religious Community) as an instrument of divine power, all the while the Brother saw himself as a secondary instrument to Saint Joseph, who was the primary conduit of God’s divine power at work through prayer.
It is striking to us from a distance just how “unadorned” Frere André’s apostolate was. We are quite accustomed to the religious celebrity who sits at the center of a well-organized (and frequently well-funded) “ministry”. The developments in social media have further promoted this style of reaching people. Inescapably, it tends to fall into the groove of the business model of expansion and public-relations promotion.
But the apostolate of Frere André through Saint Joseph was not at all like that. He wrote no books. He gave no speeches. Our record of what he said is cobbled together from people’s memories of them. Frere André’s apostolate had three phases: first, people began to seek him out as the porter at the College Notre Dame; then the Community sent him down to the tramway station to talk to the people who came in the tramway reception room; finally he was assigned to the original, small Oratory of Saint Joseph erected on the Mount Royal to receive the visitors. Other than that he was taken to visit the poor sick who could not come to him. His tools of ministry were the sacramentals of St. Joseph medals and St. Joseph oil, to be rubbed on the sick body, accompanied and followed by prayers to St. Joseph.
The last years of Frere André’s life were a virtual Way-of-the-Cross. He was very old, his health was failing, he was at the point of exhaustion, and yet—throngs of visitors came to his office making ever-increasing demands. Under the strain of it all, the cracks of impatience began to show through, as his Superior, Father Cousineau, later testified:
Many people, frightened by his ascetic expression or by the abruptness with which he put an end to meaningless conversations, failed to notice that Brother André maintained, despite his abrupt demeanor, a facial serenity [which was] the mirror of his inner peace…
For five days at the turning of the Year 1937, Frere André lay dying in a Catholic Hospital run by the Sisters of Good Hope. He asked the Sisters attending him to “Pray for my conversion”. On January 3rd, he said: “The Almighty is coming.” Fifty minutes after midnight on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, Frere André breathed his last. The grain of wheat had died and was buried in the earth.
Since then, his life in eternity has borne much fruit. The Church has given her judgment by raising him to the altars as one of her canonized Saints. But as with Christ, so with His Saints: an unbelieving, cold-hearted world does not recognize the goodness of God in their midst. This is our challenge—to see through the world’s filter and to discover just what it is to be a Christian!