by Richard C. Dujardin
Journal Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010
A relic of Brother André sits next to his bust at SS. John & James Church. (in West Warwick, RI)
He was unassuming and frail, a humble man who could not even hold down a job in the textile mills of Connecticut because of his poor health.
Yet there was something about the diminutive religious-order brother known to millions as Brother André that made people wonder if he might not be a living saint.
Born Alfred Bessette, and assigned as a porter at the College Notre-Dame in Montreal for 40 of his 91 years, he was dubbed the Miracle Man of Montreal for his seeming ability to call on divine intervention to heal the sick. It was a story attested to not only by many in Canada, but by relatives and acquaintances in Rhode Island with whom he visited frequently.
And now, 73 years after his death, Brother André is to be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday.
The import has not been lost on the people of Canada, who have arranged a series of celebrations culminating with a giant Mass of thanksgiving in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Oct. 30. Nor has it been lost on the relatives in Rhode Island who tell stories about how Brother André came to visit their parents, grandparents, great aunts and great-grandparents in the 1920s and ’30s.
Aurore Lawrence, whose grandmother, Leocadie, was one of Brother André’s sisters, recalled in 1984 how, in the early part of the 20th century, he would often attend Mass at St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph’s churches in West Warwick, and stay at her grandmother’s home on Summit Avenue in the town’s Phenix section. “But when you looked into his room the next morning, it was untouched. He slept on the floor.”
Shirley Parker, 83, of North Attleboro, whose great-grandmother was Brother André’s sister Alphonsine, said her family experienced his work first-hand. While she was far too young to know what was going on, she says her older brother, Donald Bouler, had required frequent operations and visits to doctors because of an apparent cyst in his throat. But after Brother André touched his neck during a visit to their home in Providence, she said, all those pains went away for good.
Alphonsine also was the great-grandmother of John André Barba, 63, of West Warwick, and his sister, Louise Barba, 60, of Burrillville. They remember that their mother, Blanche Barba, frequently spoke about the time when she was 10 years old and Brother André came to her home.
On that memorable night in 1926, the house at 1404 Main St. in West Warwick was crowded with people, including a businessman, Lionel Maynard, whom tuberculosis of the spine had left unable to walk for years.
In an interview in 1984, two years after Brother André was beatified — one of the last steps toward sainthood — Blanche Barba, who has since died, told how he walked into the house and told Maynard, “Don’t just sit there — get up and walk.”
The import of those words didn’t sink in on the businessman, so Brother André admonished again.
“He said, ‘Get up and walk. God has healed you,’ ” she recounted. “And Mr. Maynard got up and ran back and forth from the kitchen.
“His pain completely went away. Everybody was crying.”
When he was born in the Canadian village of St. Gregoire d’Iberville on Aug. 9, 1845, the eighth of 12 children, young Alfred Bessette was deemed so sickly that the midwife baptized him immediately, thinking he was about to die.
He survived, but when he was 9, his father was crushed while cutting down a tree. His mother died three years later. He became an itinerant laborer — in Canada, Rhode Island and Connecticut — but lost most of his jobs because of his poor health.
It was then that a priest suggested he join the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal.
Even there, he was thought to be too weak to be anything other than a janitor and doorkeeper. They were about to throw him out when he made a personal appeal to the bishop.
“They showed me the door, and I stayed there,” he would later quip. “I was at the door 40 years without going out.”
The first inkling that he might have a pipeline to the supernatural came when a student took sick with a high fever and languished in the infirmary.
“Get out of bed, you lazy fellow,” Brother André told him. When others complained, Brother André said, “Let a doctor examine him. You’ll see that St. Joseph has cured him.”
And it appeared that the student had, indeed, been cured.
But for all the reputed miracles, the brother never gave credit to himself, saying it all belonged to St. Joseph, his personal friend.
That didn’t stop the hundreds of people who would beat a trail to the doorstep of the college, a secondary boarding school, for a word with him. The crowds eventually got so large, that his superiors gave him a separate office and chapel, where he would offer words of consolation, or touch them with a medal of St. Joseph or with oil.
The venue would be the beginning of St. Joseph’s Oratory, widely considered Montreal’s most magnificent shrine, and the place where he is now buried.
The building of the basilica began in 1924, and the story has been told that during the Great Depression, when funds had run out, the order asked Brother André if he thought construction should be abandoned.
“Why are you asking me?” he reportedly replied. “The oratory belongs to St. Joseph.” Put a statue of St Joseph in the middle, he advised — “If St. Joseph wants a roof over his head, he will get it.”
Soon after that, they say, the donations began pouring in.
Monsignor Jacques L. Plante, the pastor of West Warwick’s SS. John & James Church, says it’s likely that a portion of the money used for the building came from his father.
“When my father got his first paying job, my grandmother told him to send his first paycheck to Brother André for his oratory. She said, ‘This will be for St. Joseph. If you give to St. Joseph, you will never be out of work.’
“And he never was.”
You might think, Louise Barba commented the other day, that witnessing Brother André’s miracles, or being related to him, would cause one to be forever steadfast in the faith.
But her mother, Blanche, did not become deeply religious until years later, when she matured and the “truth” of what she saw penetrated her heart, her daughter says. And Louise found herself drifting away from the faith while in college.
“I would ask myself how my faith could have been so weakened,” with Brother André just a few generations above her in the family tree.
But Louise’s faith returned, and she made up for it later. As a teacher at St. Patrick School in Providence from 1993 to 2009, she organized at least nine youth pilgrimages to St. Joseph’s Oratory so students could see the thousands of crutches and canes left by people who had prayed there. She would then have them reflect on what they learned in prayer journals.
“I think it helped them get a glimpse of how God acts,” she said. “I believe it made an impression on their minds and hearts. It was an opportunity to strengthen their faith.”
What is in store for followers of Brother André now?
Louise Barba says she knows it will be possible to watch the canonization ceremonies on EWTN, in a broadcast from Rome at 6 a.m. EDT on Oct. 17. But she’d rather be there, and will leave from Boston on Thursday, joining other pilgrims from New England.
Julien Bessette, who found out he is a seventh cousin to soon-to-be canonized saint, is president of the Frere André chapter of the Association Canado-Americaine in Woonsocket. He has organized a bus trip to Montreal for people who would like to attend the Mass at Olympic Stadium to be celebrated at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, by Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte and 35 other bishops, as well as to visit Brother André’s crypt and attend Mass at the Basilica the next day. He said 45 people have signed up and he still had eight openings for the three-day trip, which leaves Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Woonsocket Friday morning, Oct. 29. People seeking to join the bus tour can call Bessette at (401) 765-2350.
Information on other excursions, including visits to museums, is available through www.spirittours.com. Seat reservations for the Mass at Olympic Stadium can be purchased for a handling fee of $5 at www.admission.com or by calling (800) 361-4595.
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