Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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September 15, 2002
Our Lady of Sorrows

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«Lacking everything but great confidence in God»: thus did Pope John Paul II sum up Brother André Bessette's interior life during his beatification on May 23, 1982. The Holy Father added, «God was pleased to grace this simple man with an amazing attraction and power, a man who had known the poverty of being an orphan amidst ten brothers and sisters, who was left without money, without education, with poor health... It is not surprising that he felt so close to Saint Joseph, the poor and exiled laborer, so close to the Lord... By having recourse to Saint Joseph, and also before the Blessed Sacrament, he himself practiced, at length and fervently, in the name of the sick, the prayer that he taught them.»

Alfred Bessette was born on August 9, 1845, in Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville close to Montreal, Canada. A sickly child, he survived thanks to his mother's care. His parents were very simple people, without earthly goods but rich in virtues. Mr. Bessette, a carpenter, was a tireless worker. Sadly, he soon died, crushed by a tree he was chopping down, and left a widow and ten children living in a cramped log cabin. Although grief-stricken for a time, Mrs. Bessette did not lose heart—supported by her brothers and sisters, she devoted herself to raising her children. Alfred's soul blossomed in the time spent with his loving and devoted mother who talked about Jesus, Mary and Joseph with such gentleness and faith. But the child was just twelve when his mother, exhausted by sleepless nights and hard work, and wasted by tuberculosis, in turn passed away. Alfred was taken in by his aunt and uncle Nadeau who soon looked on him as their own son. He showed his gratitude through an obedient and devoted attitude. The local parish priest, Father Provençal, noticed his purity of thought and his remarkable charity. Becoming especially fond of him, he carefully prepared him for his First Communion, teaching him to invoke Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Canada.

But the Nadeau household was poor and, to earn a living, Alfred was taken on by a cobbler. After contracting a stomach disease there from which he would suffer his entire life, he entered the service of a farmer, Mr. Ouimet. It was there that he began to follow a rule of spiritual life. He rose very early to make the Stations of the Cross and pray at length, recited many rosaries over the course of the day, and conversed frequently with Saint Joseph, entrusting to him his work, his sufferings, and his joys. He also devoted himself to penitence. When Mr. Ouimet died, Alfred became a blacksmith's apprentice. In spite of his poor health, he became quite skilled in this trade. At the age of twenty, the young man went to the United States and found a job at a textile mill. Busy with his work, helpful to all, he maintained blameless moral conduct in spite of the pernicious atmosphere at the workshop. But the conditions of industrial labor weakened his health, and he left the mill for a farm, where he returned to working outdoors. Nevertheless, after having regained his strength, he started working in a textile mill again.

«I've made up my mind!»

During these unstable years in the United States, Alfred was homesick for his native country and kept in contact with Father Provençal. In July 1869, the young man received a letter from the priest that greatly surprised him. Father Provençal suggested that he enter religious life, as a simple Brother. Of course, he was interested in religious life. But would his health allow him to be accepted and persevere? He had not been able to settle down anywhere! For six months, he prayed for Saint Joseph to enlighten him. Finally, one Sunday in December, the young man returned to Saint-Césaire and headed straight for the rectory, where his elderly parish priest received him with open arms. «Have you thought it over carefully, Alfred?»—«Father, I've made up my mind—I'm going to become a Brother.» They both then delivered an ardent prayer of thanksgiving to Saint Joseph.

In the fall of 1870, Alfred went to the novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. This institute, then quite new, owed its establishment to Father Moreau, a priest from the diocese of Le Mans, France. It counted among its members priests and brothers, missionaries and teachers. Alfred was welcomed with great kindness by the Father Superior, to whom Father Provençal had written, «I am sending you a Saint for your community.» Familiar with all kinds of work, the young man performed the various tasks that were assigned to him with a cheerful heart, in union with Jesus of Nazareth, under the watchful eye of Saint Joseph. On December 27 he received the habit and took the name of Brother André, in memory of Father André Provençal. The new Brother was appointed porter of the school that was next to the novitiate.

But his health soon seemed so precarious that his superiors spoke of not allowing him to make his religious profession. One day when Bishop Bourget of Montreal came to visit the high school, Brother André threw himself at his feet, begging him to intervene so that he might be permitted to make his vows. With simplicity, he revealed his desire to serve God and his brothers in humble tasks, and told of his special devotion to Saint Joseph, in honor of whom he dreamed of building an oratory at the top of a nearby hill. The prelate, who himself had a secret desire to raise a monumental church to Saint Joseph, responded with kindness: «Fear nothing, you will be allowed to make your profession.» Thus, to the astonishment of his brothers in religion, who considered him simple-minded, he made his profession on December 28, 1871.

Shown the door

Officially admitted into the Congregation, Brother André continued to serve as porter at the school, Collège Notre-Dame, close to Mont-Royal. At the end of his life, he would say with humor, «When I left the novitiate, my Superiors showed me the door... I stayed there fourteen years.» He spent most of his days in a narrow lodge, with only a table, some chairs and a bench as furnishings. There he was, attentive to the needs of all, smiling, obliging. His task was, however, not easy. Someone was constantly ringing the bell. The Brother received the visitors, introduced them into the parlor, then ran into the institution to find the monk or student concerned. Sometimes he was snubbed because the monk requested was not available. Then the visitor would slam the door in leaving. At times, such unpleasantness would give Brother André fits of impatience, for which he would then bitterly repent. In the evening, when the come-and-go had stopped, he would engage in the difficult work, always having to start all over again, of maintaining the parlor and hallway floors. He was on his knees until late at night, washing, polishing, and waxing by the dim light of a candle. Having finished his work, he slipped into the chapel and fell to his knees before the statue of Saint Joseph ; then, facing the altar, he devoted himself to a long period of prayer.

Brother André also performed the duties of launderer, nurse, and barber. He conversed amicably with the students, helping them in their spiritual life. When he could find a confrere to replace him as porter, his greatest joy was to climb through the brambles to the peak next to Mont-Royal. There, deep in prayer, from the bottom of his heart, he would give himself over to a secret conversation with Saint Joseph. Coming down the hill, he would take up his work again with great fidelity to the task at hand, indicating nothing out of the ordinary. His humility consisted in accepting being where God had put him, carrying out his very common work, in imitation of Saint Joseph.

«Saint Joseph,» said Pope Paul VI, «presents himself to us under the most unexpected of appearances. We would like to imagine him to be a powerful man or a prophet... On the contrary, we are speaking of the most ordinary, the most modest, the humblest person you can imagine... We are on the threshold of a very poor craft shop in Nazareth. Here is Joseph, who belongs to the lineage of David, it is true, but this does not result in a title or cause for fame... We see, nevertheless, in our humble and modest person an astonishing docility, a singular promptness of obedience and execution. He does not argue, does not hesitate, does not bring in rights or aspirations... His role is to raise the Messiah for work, for the experiences of life. He will protect Him and will have the sublime prerogative—nothing less—to have to guide, direct, and assist the Redeemer of the world...

«Thus, God's great plans, the providential enterprises that the Lord proposes to human destiny, may coexist with the most common conditions of life and be supported by them. No one is excluded from the possibility of accomplishing, and that to perfection, the Divine Will... No life is ordinary, petty, insignificant, forgotten. By the very fact that we breathe and that we are in movement in the world, we are beings predestined for something great—for the Reign of God, for God's invitations, for conversation, for life and sublimation with Him, to the point of becoming 'participants in the divine nature' (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4)... He who well fulfills the duties of his state gives an incomparable grandeur to all his activity» (March 19, 1968).

Ordinary life but extraordinary favor

On earth, Saint Joseph had a quite ordinary life. However, from the time he entered Heaven, he has obtained abundant graces for those who trust in him. After about fifteen years of an obscure and laborious existence in religious life, Brother André received from the foster father of Jesus the grace to perform miracles. The Divine Wisdom is thus pleased at times to communicate a portion of its power to a humble and docile instrument, for the greater good of humanity. Aware of his weakness, Brother André, far from priding himself on the gift he had received, repeated constantly that he was only the agent of Saint Joseph, and nothing more. «The extraordinary things I can do,» he said, «are a simple favor that God grants to open the eyes of the world. Alas! The world continues to be blind!»

One night, while he was at the bedside of a student sick with diphtheria, Brother André received an inspiration. Silently, he went down to the chapel, took a Saint Joseph medal, and returned upstairs. «My Brother, why did you leave me? I am suffering very much.»—«You are not going to suffer anymore,» replied Brother André, who began to rub the child's throat with the medal, while praying to Saint Joseph. The sick boy dozed off. Early the next morning, he awoke and exclaimed, «My Brother, I'm cured!» Indeed, that morning it was confirmed that no trace of the illness remained. A while later, Brother André visited the school headmaster, who told him, «For a month I have had a wound on my leg that hasn't healed. The wound looks bad, and I'm concerned about the amount of work waiting for me in my office.»—«Make a novena to the adoptive father of the Divine Master—right now we are nine days away from his feast day.»—«So you're expecting Saint Joseph to perform a miracle?»—«But of course!» The feast of Saint Joseph arrived and, that very day, the wound completely disappeared. To the amazement of all, the headmaster went to the chapel.

«Let him do it!»

The rumors of the first miracles performed by Brother André quickly spread through the city and the sick began to come to him hoping to be cured. Soon the crowds were such that the Superior became concerned and assigned Brother André abandoned and wretched premises for receiving them. But, desiring to bring this reception of the sick to an end, he went to see the Bishop of Montreal. The prelate asked him, «If you told Brother André not to receive the sick anymore, would he do it?»—«Certainly!»—«Then let him do it. If the work he is doing comes from God, it will develop. If it isn't, it will collapse on its own.» So the stream of sick people continued. Though he cured the body, the Brother had utmost concern for the salvation of souls. He asserted to a sick man who came to see him: «If you want Saint Joseph to cure you, leave the woman you are living with in fornication and then come back to see me.» To another he said, «You will go to confession and you will begin a novena to Saint Joseph.»—«Go to confession! It's been twenty-five years since I've been to confession! I promise to do it!» And the cure immediately took place.

In spite of his exceptional gifts and a natural tendency to be in good spirits, Brother André suffered from a nervous and irritable disposition. He sometimes lost his temper and turned away visitors with catty comments or scathing remarks, especially those who treated him like a saint, or even the sick if they were irreverent or had bad morals. One evening someone said to him, «Saint Joseph remains deaf to our prayers! At least you grant all kinds of favors!»—«How can you say such offensive words about Saint Joseph?» he replied, extremely annoyed. And in his extreme indignation, he left the premises and went straight to bed! Aware of his imperfections, he had the habit of asking his friends: «Pray for my conversion!» Indeed, the saints have to struggle constantly with the weaknesses of their nature, and it is this very struggle at all times that characterizes holiness.

On Thursdays, Brother André would bring some students and even some teachers to Mont-Royal. Little by little, the plan to build an oratory on the side of the mountain took shape. In July 1896, the land was purchased and a statue of Saint Joseph was placed in the crevice of a rock. Brother André received the sick there from then on during the summer months. Soon a chapel, «The Oratory,» was built. During vacation season, Brother André hardly left the place. He arrived at a very early hour and did not leave until night. From that point on, his superiors allowed him great freedom of movement.

A lowly instrument

From 1908 on, Brother André stayed permanently at the Oratory, settled into the chapel's attic, where a bedroom and an office heated by a stove had been set up for him. He received all sorts of people there, even high-level Church dignitaries, who came to ask him for prayers. «I have no power,» the humble monk would tell them. «Nothing that I do in the cures comes from me. Everything comes from Saint Joseph, who obtains these extraordinary graces from God. I am nothing more than a lowly instrument, whom the Patron of the Church uses to perform wonders, to bring about conversions and an increase in Christian perfection.» The spiritual impact of the miracles in souls was more important to him than the cures. Every day he was on the lookout to rescue sinners from the devil, who for that matter did not hesitate to make his presence known to him. More than once he disturbed the Brother with the noise of breaking dishes. Brother André was even heard alone in his room, forcefully expressing himself to a mysterious person.

In 1912, with some pilgrimages gathering more than ten thousand people, plans to expand the chapel were approved. Soon the Archbishop of Montreal envisioned the construction of a basilica in honor of Saint Joseph. Brother André was filled with joy. At first a spacious crypt was constructed, next to which a convent was set up for the religious of the Holy Cross, who would be charged with running the sanctuary. Immense terraces and gardens would allow crowds to be received. Brother André foresaw a great movement for the adoration of God and the mass conversion of sinners. But the considerable sums of money needed to construct the basilica had yet to be found. To this end, a magazine was created, «The Saint Joseph Review,» then a «Confraternity of Saint Joseph,» which quickly gained more than thirty thousand members. Zealous supporters even dedicated themselves to fundraising in the United States.

In 1924, the heavy pillars of a basilica in neoclassical architecture began to be built. Until about 1930 work continued uninterruptedly. But the architect's death and a lack of funds interrupted construction for several years, to Brother André's great disappointment. Nevertheless, the humble monk was never lacking in confidence. Every year he made a fundraising circuit in the United States. These trips, where he had to appear in public in front of enthusiastic crowds, were extremely painful for him. But he undertook them for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The Americans' generosity profoundly moved him. Cures were numerous. Brother André demanded of those who spoke to him no more than great confidence in God and total submission to His will.

This extraordinary man, nearly ninety years old, astonished audiences with the youthfulness of his heart. «We imagine the Christian faith as very old,» he stated. «This is wrong—it's quite young!» Indeed, for God and so for Our Lord, everything is present. This truth profoundly influenced Brother André's prayer and contemplation. In his meditation he would imagine himself present in the scenes of the life of Jesus, as Saint Ignatius recommends in his Spiritual Exercises. Thus, when he made his Stations of the Cross, which he frequently did, he followed Christ as if he personally were a witness to the Passion, convinced that his outbursts of love truly alleviated the Lord's sufferings. When he spoke to Saint Joseph, he likewise visualized himself working at his side in the workshop in Nazareth, or beside the Blessed Virgin. These vivid contemplations increased his love of God and his charity towards his neighbor.

But Brother André's greatest suffering lay in seeing the work on the basilica interrupted. At a meeting of the Mont-Royal chapel council in the beginning of November 1936, he exclaimed, «Let's go right away to carry the statue of Saint Joseph into the apse of the basilica, and our Patron Saint will take care of covering it with a dome.» No sooner said than done. A short while later, a bond was issued, quickly covered by donations. Work resumed. «The continuation of work is ensured,» said Brother André. «I am useless now, it is time for me to go.» A venerable ninety-year-old, exhausted by work, he felt his strength leave him and received the sick just twice a week.

If only people loved God!

On Christmas Eve he told a friend, «This is probably the last Christmas for me.»—«But the Oratory still needs you!»—«I'm allowed to hope to die, when it's because I want to see Heaven... When someone does good on earth, it's nothing in comparison to what he can do once he enters Heaven.» Shortly thereafter he was hospitalized with acute gastritis. The completion of the basilica occupied his thoughts, because he was aware of the good that Saint Joseph accomplished on Mont-Royal. «You don't know how much God is doing at the Oratory,» he told his superior. «What terrible things there are in the world!... I was in a position to see that... If only people loved God, they would never sin—everything would go perfectly if they loved God as He loves them.» On Wednesday, January 6, 1937, he rendered his soul to God and entered true life. Immediately the news spread through Canada and the United States. Expressions of sympathy came from all over. The humble Brother André experienced a veritable triumph, which was nevertheless but a pale reflection of his glory in Heaven where, with Saint Joseph, he powerfully intercedes for the Church and each of the faithful. Saint Joseph is, indeed, the «Protector of the Holy Church.»—«Is it not logical then and necessary,» said Pope John Paul II on March 19, 1993, «that he to whom the Eternal Father entrusted His Son, should offer the same protection to the Body of Christ which, according to the teaching of the Apostle Paul, is the Church? Today the community of believers throughout the whole world entrusts to St. Joseph themselves and their needs at this difficult stage of history.»

Let us learn from Saint Joseph and from Blessed Brother André the love of prayer. «Is not Brother André's confidence in the power of prayer one of the most valuable instructions for the men and women of our time, who are tempted to solve their problems by dispensing with God?» the Pope asked during the Brother's beatification. May he obtain for us the grace to pray with love and confidence every day of our lives!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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