With the prospect of being denied profession of religious vows because of precarious health, Alfred (now known as André) found in his novice master a champion who told congregational superiors: “If this young man is one day unable to work, he will at least know very well how to pray.”
On Oct. 17, the canonization of Holy Cross Brother André Bessette, will validate the bold insights of these two advocates.
My introduction to Brother André was made as a student at St. Joseph’s School, a predominantly French-Canadian parish school in Cohoes.
Holy cards of this beloved apostle of St. Joseph were often given by the Sisters of St. Anne to encourage devotion to the miracle-worker of Montréal, and stories of Brother André’s frequent visits to Cohoes circulated within the parish.
My parents recalled his visit to the Bessettes, who lived across from my grandfather’s house on Lancaster Street, as well as a visit to pray with the invalid mother of a family friend.
A framed picture of Brother André hung on the wall of a room in the parish rectory, identifying where this saintly visitor often stayed during his visits to Cohoes.
One parishioner, Louise Bernier, an elderly asthmatic for whom I did household chores, gave me a swatch of black wool. She told me this material was the remnant cut from a heavy wool coat that she had shortened for Brother André during one of his stays at the rectory.
Mrs. Bernier was convinced she was handing me a relic of a saint. Unfortunately, her instruction was not strong enough to impress this youngster; the piece of Brother André’s coat — seen in several photographs in our Holy Cross archives — is a long-lost relic.
On my family’s frequent visits to Canadian relatives, St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal was a favorite destination. My mother would join other pilgrims ascending the stairs to the monumental building on their knees.
My brother and I were more eager to see the crutches, braces and other signs of Brother André’s miraculous healings that were mounted on the walls of the church’s vestibule. It was obvious early on that this man was already canonized in the memory of the Canadian people. How delighted a Canadian aunt was when she learned I was in the company of “le saint Frère André!”
Frère André and I share membership in the Congregation of Holy Cross. While my own faith journey has not included a dream of building a major shrine to St. Joseph, it’s enough for me to claim brotherhood with this barely literate, sickly young man whom the Congregation — against its better judgment — granted admission, allowed him the menial tasks of door-keeper and barber at a boarding school, and who now becomes its first canonized saint.
(Brother Edward Boyer is director of the St. Joseph Center in Valatie.)