I have heard the names Andre and Bessette in my life lately, as friends have used them as names for their children. I know in at least one case that this was to honor the Saint Andre Bessette, whose feast we celebrate today. This man’s virtue and example led to his beatification in 1982 by Pope John Paul II and his canonization in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
The Early Life of Andre Bessette
In 1845, Alfred Bessette was born to a large family in the province of Quebec, Canada. Orphaned and adopted at the age of twelve, he began his work in a diverse area of trades including work as a shoemaker, baker, blacksmith, and factory worker. Due to his frail health, he was unable to hold a job for very long.
Finally, when he was twenty-five, he submitted his application to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, whose motto is Ave Crux, Spes Unica meaning “Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope”. This motto calls on those in the community to bear the cross as a gift and share the hope of the Gospel with others. Despite his desire and willingness to bear this cross, his entrance did not come with ease. While Alfred’s childhood pastor sent a note of recommendation, saying, “I am sending you a saint” the community initially denied him entrance due to his poor health.
Eventually, after the prompting of the Archbishop of Montreal, he was admitted into the community. He took the name Andre, in honor of his childhood pastor.
A Shared Simplicity
Andre Bessette’s example reminds me of the humility of St. Joseph. He received the simple tasks he was given with meekness. He served diligently as a doorkeeper, sacristan, and laundry worker. French Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet wrote, “It is only an extreme simplicity that can render the heart obedient and accommodating.”
Bossuet makes the point that it is only in striving to fully surrender ourselves to God that we can come to complete unity with Him. It is this surrender and union to God that enabled Andre to serve so obediently and humbly with his community. He approached his everyday, menial tasks with the same attitude that St. Joseph would, with obedience and positivity.
In Andre’s words:
My only ambition is to serve God in the most humble tasks.
Mundane to Majestic
His joyful spirit in these mundane duties proved his faithfulness and perseverance. It would prelude the great mission that God had in store for him. A mission to fundraise for what would become the world’s largest shrine, dedicated to a man with whom he shared much in common: the humble and simple St. Joseph.
While Brother Andre only stood five feet tall, the monument that he helped to found stands at the highest point in Montreal. It is taller than even Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London or Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
His Great Mission
Brother Andre was given permission to start fundraising in 1900 and the original chapel officially opened in 1904. This basilica, called St. Joseph’s Oratory, began in 1924, on the fiftieth Jubilee of Brother Andre’s Final Vows. The cornerstone of the basilica was blessed before a crowd of over thirty-thousand people.
Unfortunately, Brother Andre passed away before the basilica was completed. Yet after his passing, construction continued. But not without the help of thousands of workers. Finally, on March 19, 1955 , the Feast of St. Joseph, it was inaugurated as a Minor Basilica.
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A Peek Inside
A friend and I made a pilgrimage to Saint Joseph’s Oratory a few summers ago, we dubbed the road trip “The Great Canadian Adventure.”
My arrival to the destination was met with a deep sense of St. Joseph’s presence. I felt him most closely not in the basilica itself, but rather at the end of the votive chapel downstairs, which is near both the crypt church and the tomb of Brother Andre. This art-deco votive chapel was designed in the late 1940’s and it holds objects like canes and crutches which were left behind by grateful pilgrims showing off the graces and healings which have been granted through St. Joseph’s intercession.
A Candle Glowing
Imagine 10,000 candles lit all around you. This chapel glows with the light of them and you can even feel the heat of these small flames as you walk past. The flickering lights led me to an unassuming hallway at the end of the chapel where there stood a small statue of St. Joseph. In contrast to the votive chapel, one solitary wick floats on the surface of a basin containing vegetable oil in front of the statue of St. Joseph.
I knelt down to pray with him there and I felt such peace. I felt like he was praying there right beside me. It was only later that I learned that it was the statue where Brother Andre took a bit of oil from a lamp that was burning in front of it, and he offered that oil to those who were sick, telling them to rub it on their body and to ask for St. Joseph’s intercession for their healing. This oil is not meant to be used as a treatment, but rather a form of faith. This candle burns day and night and the oil is given to pilgrims as they entrust their petitions into St. Joseph’s fatherly intercession.
The location of this statue of St. Joseph was not fixed in a place of great prominence, reflecting his great humility, the same humility he shared with Andre.
Now, nine years after Brother Andre’s canonization, I have a canister of this oil in my home, a wedding gift from friends of mine, two Holy Cross Priests. This oil is a reminder to follow Saint Andre’s example and more fully surrender my heart to God.
We can trust in His plan, because even if our everyday life looks like a routine of mundane tasks like Brother Andre’s, God will bear fruit out of our everyday yesses.St. Andre Bessette #BISblog // Click To Tweet