Brother André

b andre

Last Saturday Fr Steve held a talk here at the centre on Brother André Bassette, the first Holy Cross Priest to be made a Saint; I thought I would share some of this humble, dedicated man’s story with you.

At birth, Brother André was so weak and sickly that his parents had the newborn baptized immediately, fearing he wouldn’t survive till morning.
He lived to the venerable age of 91.
His heart, which ceased beating just past midnight on Jan. 6, 1937, is on display in a reliquary at St. Joseph’s Oratory, a rather macabre beacon to pilgrims who still come by the millions in search of comfort, spirituality and miracles, many ascending the basilica’s 283 steps on their knees.
It’s a heart, by the way, that was abducted in March 1973 and held for ransom. The archbishop of Montreal declined to deal, saying: “Brother André’s heart is priceless so we refuse to pay any price for it.’’
Thwarted, left with a heart on their hands and perhaps spooked, the thieves eventually made an anonymous call in December 1974, informing the diocese where the wayward organ could be found. The pilferers were never apprehended.
Pope Benedict XVI made this humble Holy Cross brother — orphaned at 12, unschooled and illiterate, itinerant labourer, lowly college porter for most of his adult life — a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, from Alfred Bessette, né, to Brother André to St. André, only the second Canadian ever canonized.
For Brother André,the miracle that set it all in motion was a 9-year-old boy with a severe cranial injury, in an irreversible coma following a car accident outside Montreal in 1999. That child recovered completely after his family prayed fervently to Brother André, confounding all medical experts, and is now a healthy university student.
But there is also the broader miracle of Brother André’s own life, the sheer unlikelihood of a halo being fitted for this unlettered, chronically frail fellow.
That meant four decades as gatekeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, leaving his claustrophobic cubicle only to perform menial jobs, variously janitor and barber to youths attending the school.
Yet he purportedly cured thousands of infirm supplicants while alive and built a tiny chapel in the then woods on the slope of Mount Royal, across from the college, that would be transformed into the largest shrine on Earth dedicated to St. Joseph.
Not all saints, in fact very few of them, performed miracles whilst still alive. Though beatification requires proof of a miracle post-death (the Vatican never reveals those details) and canonization demands a second, separate miracle (shared with the public), Brother André is quite distinct for the countless wonders he is believed to have performed throughout his life — although never claiming credit for any of them, insisting he was only a facilitator for St. Joseph, the go-between.
Why Brother André? What made him so exceptional?
He was at first rejected as a novitiate by the Holy Cross Order because they worried the frail 5-foot-tall applicant would be incapable work and would end up as no more than a burden. Further, upon acceptance, he was unwavering in his devotion to St. Joseph, a one-man cheering section for the low profile saint who, was the official patron of Canada.
“(Joseph) was a background kind of guy,’’ Father Claude Grou, rector of the Oratory, concedes with a chuckle. “I think that’s why Brother André liked him so much, because he was a background kind of guy too.
“He was happy with his work as a doorkeeper. He never wanted to become the star of the story. That’s just the way it turned out. Joseph was a simple man and that appealed to Brother André.’’
Such simplicity of faith and lifestyle, Grou suggests, accounts for Brother André’s enduring popularity, at least in Quebec, despite a dramatic drop-off in the Church’s relevance, even among French-Canadian Catholics. His death drew more mourners, filing by the casket, than that of prime ministers.
What he specifically made happen was construction of a teensy chapel dedicated to Joseph, later replaced by a modestly larger facility and eventually, as catalyst for the huge donated sums needed, this massive basilica André never actually lived to see completed, with upwards of 2 million pilgrims visiting annually. Pope John Paul came here to pray at André’s tomb as well.
Although André has been dead for 73 years, some witnesses to his “miracles’’ are still alive; plenty more are those who claim ancestors cured by the brother.
“In the context of canonization, we have heard from many, many people telling us their own stories,’’ says Grou. “We receive more than a thousand letters a year from such people. Of course, there’s no way that we can study all cases of people who say they were cured by Brother André.’’
The vast majority of supplicants weren’t healed. Yet they all departed consoled, apparently, strengthened spiritually by their shared praying with André. To ask why one person is cured and not another equally worthy faithful is beyond the ken of the Church.
“It would be the same as someone who gets cancer saying, ‘why me?’ That is God’s mystery. There’s no answer to that question, except this phrase from the Bible: God’s ways are not our ways.’’
Grou is an educated man who spent 16 years ministering in India before becoming Superior General in Rome for the entire Holy Cross congregation, assigned to rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory in 2005. He understands the incredulity with which miracles are attended in a modern age. Even with the intense scrutiny that the Vatican applies to miracle-vetting, in the end, a supernatural phenomenon can only be taken on faith, just like the quaint notion of sainthood in a modern, secular age.
“I know the intellectual arguments against it,’’ says Grou. “We think from our brain. But people don’t only live with the brain. People come here to light a lamp, to touch the foot of St. Joseph’s statue, to put their hand on the crucifix, on Brother André’s tomb.
“We experience things with our whole body, our senses. From that perspective, I think we still need saints that will inspire and guide us in our lives.
“I believe in miracles.’’
Here at the Father Peyton Centre we have a first class relic from Brother André on display.