The Oratory of Saint Joseph at Mount Royal is a magnificent structure, its imposing dome dominating the highest point of the cosmopolitan city of Montreal. In the incomprehensible ways of God, this majestic basilica, the largest church in Canada, is named for and dedicated to one of His humblest creatures: the carpenter of Nazareth, whose feast day we celebrate on March 19th.
It has long been noted that not one word uttered by Saint Joseph is recorded in Sacred Scripture, yet what we read between the lines there paints a portrait of a genuinely good man – kind, just, righteous, close to his God and ever open to the workings of His will, for himself and for those entrusted to his care.
Many centuries after the Holy Family lived under Saint Joseph’s care, another humble soul whose home was thousands of miles from Nazareth invoked the aid of this gentle saint as a mentor and friend.
Alfred Bessette was born in Quebec in 1845, into a life seemingly destined to be one of poverty and obscurity. Orphaned young, poorly educated, often in ill health, he tried his hand at several menial jobs. The one constant in his life was his steadfast faith, with fervent devotion to Saint Joseph. Finally, at the suggestion of his home pastor, he entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Cross at Montreal, taking the pastor’s name, André.
Brother André’s life in religion closely resembled his own demeanor – humble, unassuming, and deeply spiritual. His lifelong love for Saint Joseph was a hallmark of his quiet spirituality. Besides a number of menial tasks, his chief assignment was as doorkeeper, or porter, at the Notre Dame School where he welcomed visitors and responded to their requests and needs. This continued for forty years.
At times, it was the sick and needy who came to Brother André’s door for his compassionate ministrations and prayers. Sometimes, in the course of praying with the sick, he would apply a little oil taken from a lamp burning before the statue of Saint Joseph in the school chapel. The healings which resulted at times after such anointing added to the lowly doorkeeper’s growing reputation as a healer.
Without fail, Brother André would insist that any credit for healings belonged not to himself but to God through the intercessions of Saint Joseph. His advice to those seeking help was simple – “Go to Joseph.”
The great desire of Brother André’s heart was to build a chapel in honor of this saint he loved. At first, upon approval of his Order in 1904, a small structure was built for this purpose. Word spread quickly, though, and within several years, the numbers of faithful seeking Brother André’s assistance increased so greatly that the original shrine needed to be enlarged. In time, his Order allowed him to forego his porter duties to become caretaker of the modestly expanded Oratory.
Eventually, construction was begun on the huge Main Basilica of the Oratory which stands today.
Brother André was greatly blessed with length of days. During his 91 years of life, he touched numerous souls in his gentle, unassuming way, and helped countless individuals to find solace and healing through faith in the powerful intercessions of his heavenly mentor, Saint Joseph. Upon his death, in the midst of a frigid Montreal winter, those paying respects numbered an estimated one million people.
The great basilica constructed upon Mount Royal in honor of Saint Joseph, the largest shrine in the world dedicated to him, is the destination of several million pilgrims annually. Evidence of numerous healings can be seen in side chapels whose walls are hung with crutches, canes, and other implements for the handicapped.
As for the humble Brother André, he was declared a saint of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Frail of constitution and diminutive in size during his lifetime, he was nonetheless a spiritual giant. His body lies today within the Oratory he did not live to see completed.
Saint André would be the first to deny any comparison between himself and Saint Joseph, yet there are some unmistakable similarities between them. Both are examples to the faithful of utter devotion to God and steadfastness in prayer. Both demonstrated compassion to those in need of their assistance. Despite their limiting circumstances and daily challenges, both remained open to the voice of God and to carrying out His will for their lives.
The following prayer honoring these two beloved saints comes to us from the Oratory of Saint Joseph:
Lord, we thank you for this wonderful heritage left us by Saint Brother André.
Grant us the same steadfast faith that guided him throughout his life.
Transform our hearts that we may accept our sisters and brothers as he did – with compassion.
Teach us to turn with confidence to his friend Saint Joseph
as we entrust to him the anxieties and the afflictions
of those who appeal to us.
Give us the grace to discover in the very act of acceptance and service
the path toward joy and peace of heart.
We pray to you, Father, through your Son, in the Spirit.