Today, the Vatican announced that Canadian André Bessette, or Brother André as he is more commonly known, will be canonized on 17 October in Rome. Once canonized, Brother André will join St. Marguerite Bourgeoys (1982) and St. Marguerite d'Youville (1990), as well as eight Jesuit missionaries recognized as Canadian saints.
Brother André was born Alfred Bessette on 9 August 1945 in Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville, Quebec near Montreal, as one of twelve children. Orphaned early in life, he worked at various jobs until joining the Congregation of the Holy Cross, where he worked as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, Canada, among other jobs. He also ministered to the sick, often by rubbing the sick person with oil, for which he gained a reputation as a healer. He also ostensibly cured everyone in an epidemic at his college.
Word of his power spread, and soon people began flooding to his door. The church was uneasy about his popularity, but Brother André never claimed that he could heal anyone: instead, he attributed the healing to St. Joseph, to whom he had a particular devotion.
Brother André's great wish was that St. Joseph would one day be venerated on Mount Royal in Montreal, which came to be when the Holy Cross was finally successful in purchasing land on Mount Royal on which to build a chapel. He helped collect money to build the church, which was started in 1904, and received visitors there, in addition to "curing" many people. Today, the chapel is part of St. Joseph's Oratory on Mount Royal, the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph, and the largest church in Canada.
I visited the Oratory when I was about eight and will never forget its dark and creepy interior: the walls were covered with braces, canes and crutches from people who had purportedly been cured. Worst of all, Brother André's heart was on display, preserved in a jar. Yuck.
According to the Oratory website: "At the time of Brother André’s death, the Archbishop of Montreal, George Gauthier, suggested reviving of a little known custom of the Middle Ages. In medieval France and Italy, when people of note passed away their hearts were often removed from their bodies before burial and preserved as a token of admiration or recognition. The hearts of the kings of France were long preserved in this way. It was therefore decided to preserve Brother André’s heart in a reliquary at the Oratory where it remains as a sign of his continuing spiritual presence among us." (www.saint-joseph.org/en)
Brother André died on 6 January in 1937 and more than one million people paid their respects. Calls for sainthood began almost immediately: he earned the title of Venerable (which means that Catholics could pray to him) in 1978, and was later beatified on 12 June 1982 (based on his first miracle of curing Guiseppe Carlo Audino of cancer in 1958 -- the road to sainthood is certainly convoluted and strange). A second miracle qualified him for canonization (details?), which will take place on 17 October. His feast day is on 6 January.
Australia's Mary MacKillop, a nun, will also be canonized along with Brother André on 17 October, making her the country's first saint.
The Oratory served as the backdrop of the 1989 film, Jésus de Montréal.
More than 2 million people visit the Oratory each year.
The reliquary containing the heart of Brother André was stolen from the shrine on 15 March 1973, but later recovered from the home of a basement in South Montreal on 21 December 1974.
Read the press release from St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal.