Late one evening, a young man was hobbling on crutches down a Montreal city street. A car pulled up alongside him, and a middle-aged passenger in a religious habit leaned his head out of the window. "What happened to you?" he asked.
The young man explained that he had been injured in an accident. In a firm voice, his questioner replied, "Walk! Let go of your crutches and walk!" No way could he do that, said the young man. But the older man insisted. "I said, let go of your crutches and walk!"
This time, somehow reassured by the stranger’s confidence, the young man let the crutches fall. Amazed, he discovered he could walk without any trouble. "I know you are not the Good God," he shouted as the car moved away, "but you must be someone great!"
The mysterious passenger was André Bessette, a brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (CSC), and being thought "someone great" was the last thing he ever sought. Although he became known the world over as a miracle worker, he saw himself as nothing more than the Lord’s humble servant—"only a tool in the hands of Providence."
Yet thousands have claimed physical and spiritual healing through Brother André’s intercession. It is estimated that from 1910 until his death in 1937, over ten thousand people reported some major physical cure—an average of four hundred each year. Countless others who received no physical healing said they were comforted, converted, or spiritually renewed through his prayers and counsel. And similar reports continue to come in from visitors to St. Joseph’s Oratory, the shrine in Montreal that Brother André helped to build.
That God could do so much through one person seems utterly astounding. But as Bessette always emphasized, this was not his own work. All he ever aimed for was to surrender to God in childlike simplicity of faith. "A good for nothing is good for everything," he used to say of himself. And so, while he had no confidence in his own ability, André had no doubt that with God, "all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).
Weak but Strong. Brother André—born Alfred Bessette in 1845—began developing his confidence in God at an early age. He learned to pray from his mother, who said that even as a small boy he liked to spend hours in church.
Like his favorite saint, Joseph, young Alfred was also a very hard worker. Both his parents died before he was twelve, so he supported himself at various jobs, working for a cobbler, tinsmith, blacksmith, and wheelwright; for a brief period, he labored at textile mills and farms in New England. He did all this even though he was relatively frail and suffered constant digestive problems.
Bessette was twenty-five, working as a stable boy in the Montreal area, when his employer saw him kneeling in the barn one evening, praying before a crucifix. Sensing something special about this worker, he spoke of him to the parish priest, who was connected with the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
Bessette had serious doubts about applying to this teaching order: His health was poor, and he was nearly illiterate, having never received a formal education. But when the pastor told him he could be a "working brother" instead of a teacher, he readily agreed, telling him, "I want to enter religion to sanctify myself and serve the Good God. I want to be able to pray more easily."
God’s Doorkeeper. After taking his final vows as Brother André four years later, he was made doorkeeper of Notre Dame College, a boys’ school then on the outskirts of Montreal. It was the ideal outlet for his tremendous zeal to pray and serve.
The assignment was perfectly suited to a jack-of-all-trades. Brother André handled visitors, awakened the boarding students, took care of the mail, delivered laundry, washed windows, cleaned floors, and served as the community shoemaker, barber, gardener, and undertaker. On his time off, he visited the sick. Most people wouldn’t have endured this routine for very long, but the frail doorkeeper lasted forty years.
He prayed even harder than he worked. "I have asked God to keep me always in his presence," he once said. Later in life, he would often pray most of the night—yet still be fresh the next day. And all that prayer left its mark. "When he described heaven," said one friend, "he seemed to see it."
As mystical as this may sound, Bessette’s devotions were very simple. He prayed fervently to St. Joseph, loved the gospels, and was devoted to the Eucharist. Most of all, he loved meditating on Christ’s Passion, speaking of it so earnestly that it seemed as if he was caught up in it himself. He often told the students, "The wounds of Jesus are a book from which you can get more knowledge than from the wisest men."
St. Joseph’s Friend. Bessette loved Joseph—not in a sentimental way but as a saint who could lead people to Christ and who was a steward of graces for the sick and poor. And so one day, he told a brother with an injured leg to rub the injury with oil from a lamp burning before the chapel’s statue of St. Joseph. The brother was healed the next day.
No one would have associated the humble porter with the cure, but soon visitors to the school were saying that Brother André listened to their problems and consoled them, and that his prayers and remedies often brought them healing. Over the next two decades, these reports grew so numerous that Brother André became known as "the Miracle Man of Montreal." Cancer, heart disease, deformities, broken bones, blindness, deafness—there was scarcely any illness that was not cured through his influence.
While giving all the credit to the intercession of St. Joseph, Bessette wanted the healings publicized. "These cures do much good not only to the person who is healed but also to all those who hear about them," he said.
But Brother André always insisted that faith in God was the ultimate goal. As Jesus did, he often instructed people to express their faith through some simple action. Rubbing themselves with oil and a St. Joseph’s medal or making a novena to Joseph were his usual suggestions.
When people were healed quickly, Brother André said, it was to increase their faith. Such was the case with one man who never attended church. A firefighter, he was in agony from a fall and limped up a flight of stairs to see the saintly porter. When Bessette took off the leg brace, the man’s pain left immediately and he ran down the stairs! It was the first step in his reconciliation with God and the church.
When someone healed slowly or not at all, Brother André suggested that perhaps their faith was already strong, and God wanted it to become stronger. He always comforted those in pain but encouraged them to unite their sufferings to Christ#8217;s. "Be grateful to God for coming to you by trials, for you are very fortunate," he would tell them. "If we only knew the value of suffering, we would fall on our knees and ask God for it."
A Place of Prayer and Healing. As word of the healings spread, the sick and the lame started crowding into the school. Concerned about the students’ safety—and also about the inevitable rumors that Brother André was a fraud—his superiors directed him to see his visitors in a small train station across the street.
But with the number of visitors steadily increasing, Brother André began asking and praying that a chapel be built on Mount Royal, the high hill facing the college. The chapel was to be erected in honor of St. Joseph and called the Oratory, or place of prayer. The original Oratory was completed in 1910, but as the number of visitors—and reported healings—grew into the thousands, construction began on a large crypt church, to be surmounted by a massive basilica. Today, standing tall on the Montreal horizon, the Oratory welcomes some two million pilgrims a year and is the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph.
Its current rector, Fr. Claude Grou, says, "Every week we receive comments from people who have experienced the healing power of God after their visit to the Oratory. Many speak to us of the conversion they have experienced during or after their visit."
"Here is the Grain." Brother André became the Oratory’s official guardian in 1909 but did not live to see it completed. His health had been growing steadily worse, to the point that he was suffering constantly. In December of 1936, after loans were approved to finish the Oratory’s construction, he told his superior, "It’s time for me to go. I’ve done all I had to do." A few days later, he had a mild heart attack., then lingered for three days, thanking God for the grace of his suffering. Not surprisingly, he also asked his superior to pray for his conversion.
Just before he died, on January 6, 1937, Brother André spoke his final words: "Here is the grain." His funeral, attended by almost a million people, was a powerful illustration that a life surrendered to God—one "grain of wheat" that "falls to the ground and dies"—will bear amazing fruit (John 12:24).
During the homily for Brother André’s beatification in 1982, Pope John Paul II asked, "Where does his unheard-of radiance, his fame among millions of people, come from?" The answer is well expressed in the experience of one Oratory visitor, who touched Brother André’s tomb and felt a burning, purifying sensation that enveloped her entire body. It was like touching "the heart of God," she said, struggling to put it into words, "the fire of true, unconditional love."
Brother André brought that burning, healing love of Christ to everyone around him. His story—the story of a simple fellow who gave everything to the Lord—tells us that in our own way, we can do the same. God can work wonders through us all.
Bob French lives in Alexandria, Virginia. This story was based on biographies including The Wonder Man of Mount Royal, by H.P. Bergeron, CSC, and The Life of Brother André, by C. Bernard Ruffin. More on Brother André and the Oratory at: www.saint-joseph.org. Thanks to the Archives of Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal, Montreal, for providing photographic material of André Bessette.