Countdown to St. Joseph’s Day: 3 days
It has been said that the story of the magnificent basilica pictured above is a story of a man and a mountain. The man is St. André Bessette and the mountain is Mont Royal in Montreal, Canada. Yet, it is also the story of our glorious St. Joseph and the wonders God worked through his intercession and the faith of a simple French Canadian religious brother who would inspire the construction of the world renown pilgrimage site: The Basilica of St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal.
St. André Bessette was born on August 9, 1845 in St.-Gregoire d’Iberville, Canada. He grew up in a poor but loving family who faithfully handed on the deposit of faith to the little and sickly André. From his father, Issac Bessette, a local carpenter, he learned to love and trust our blessed patron. And when Issac was killed, crushed to death by a falling tree, the 9 year old André turned to St. Joseph—as did the Infant Jesus—to be his foster-father and protector.
As a young adult, André discerned a vocation to the religious life, and he ardently desired to join the Congregation of Holy Cross. He was allowed to enter the seminary, but due to his poor health, the Congregaton’s superiors were hesitant to permit him to profess his final vows.
However, through the intercession of St. Joseph, André was finally allowed to make his final profession as a Brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross at the College of Notre Dame, the Congregation’s novitiate house and school for boys. One of St. André’s strongest advocates was his Novice Master, Fr. Guy, who argued before his superiors, “If this young man becomes unable to work, he can at least pray. Dear Confreres, we are all dedicated to teaching people to pray. This man teaches mainly by his example.”
Our André would not go on to earn high academic degrees or even pursue ordination to the priesthood. His job at Notre Dame College was that of factotum, an assistant who helps out with various jobs. And whatever assignment this holy factotum was given, he performed his duty with kindness, generosity, and joy. In doing these lowly, menial jobs, Br. André imitated the virtues of the poor carpenter of Nazareth; he became a living image of St. Joseph to whomever he encountered. André did everything with great love, offering himself and his seemingly few talents to serve and glorify God—as did the tender Guardian of the Holy Family who unselfishly gave his all out of love for his Infant God and his most immaculate bride.
One of André’s tasks was that of porter; he had the responsibility of opening the door and greeting any visitor to the college. He was given a little room by the front door with a narrow wooden couch on which to sleep. The window of his room looked out on Mount Royal; at that time, it was only a tree covered hill rising above the College. On the windowsill, he placed a small statue of St. Joseph turned so that the statue looking out. When people asked why does St. Joseph have his back towards him, Br. André would reply, “Because some day St. Joseph is going to be honored in a special way on Mount Royal!”
Another of Br. André’s jobs was to assist with washing the students’ clothes and delivering their clean laundry to them. While on his many trips through campus and the town, Br. André would hear that someone was ill. As man with frail health himself, he empathized with the poor person’s condition and would often visit the homes of the sick to cheer them up and to pray with them.
Br. André would carry with him some oil from the lamp that burned before the image of St. Joseph in the college’s chapel. He would pray with the sick person, imploring the assistance of St. Joseph, and rub some of the oil on the patient’s body.
Soon, reports began to spread that people were being miraculously healed. Br. André never took credit for these unexplained cures, but rather gave credit to St. Joseph for the healing.
Br. Alderic, a fellow Holy Cross Brother, experienced first hand the power of St. Joseph’s intercession and Br. André’s prayers on his behalf. Br. Alderic had a wound on his leg that refused to heal even after months of medical treatment. Then, he decided to approach Br. André. Br. Alderic late wrote of the incident,
On Sunday, March 31…I asked little Brother André to fetch me a bit of oil from the lamp of St. Joseph, the oil about which he had told me wonderful things. The good Brother André did not believe he was authorized to grant me the object of my request and, to obtain it, I had to turn to Brother Ladislas who had greater authority as sacristan of Notre Dame. That evening, I applied a few drops from my precious vial on my leg wound, praying to St. Joseph to cure me and promising him, if he answered my prayer, to receive Holy Communion the following day in thanksgiving.”
“I felt no pain. At the end of two days, the wound had completely healed.”
“[If] I wanted to recount all the marvels wrought here by our good and powerful St. Joseph, I would not finish.”
Although Br. André’s fame soon spread, the little Holy Cross Brother maintained his Patron’s humility, insisting that people should “Go to Joseph” (Genesis 41:55) and give him thanks for the healing. With each passing day more and more sick people began showing up at Notre Dame College asking to see Br. André. This more than concerned his superiors, and at least on one occasion, he was told that he cannot visit with any more sick people. Ever obedient, Br. André willingly complied. But the sick kept coming. Br. André was again permitted to pray with the sick and rub St. Joseph’s oil on them. Now the question was “Where can all these sick people go that is away from the students?”
Again, Br. André looked to the forested hill of Mount Royal. In fact, the Congregation wished to purchase that property for some time, but the agreement always feel through. Then, in 1896, the owners sold the property on Mount Royal to the Congregation. At first Br. André set out to construct a small chapel building that only enclosed the altar, but this left the sick people out in the cold or wet weather. Then, a fully covered shrine was built, but soon this space could no longer accommodate the masses of people who wanted to see Br. André.
So, the decision was finally made to construct the grand oratory you see in the photo. In these construction projects, Br. André always turned with great trust to his father and benefactor, the mighty St. Joseph whose own hands, sweat, and labor provided food to the Bread of Life and shelter for the Creator of the universe.
One day, a mason visited Br. André who had been diagnosed with a stomach tumor. The poor man was very weak and frail because the tumor made eating difficult, so he had lost much weight. Br. André turned to this stone worker and asked,
“If St. Joseph cured you, would you come and work with me on the mountain?”
The man, emaciated by his illness, did not place much faith in André’s words.
“If you are willing,” Brother Andre continued, “I shall count on you tomorrow morning.”
At exactly 6:15 the next morning the man arrived and ate a hearty breakfast with Brother Andre. Andre advised him that St. Joseph had cured him and that he was to fulfill his part of the bargain.
“To work, to work,” Andre cheerfully cried.
The mason obeyed, and for the first time in months put in a full day’s work.
As you can imagine, building a monumental oratory is quite a monumental undertaking. Br. André did his best to fundraise to make his Josephine dream a reality, but the Great Depression of the 1930s was affecting donations, and when there wasn’t enough money, the work completely stopped.
The project was stalled for several years when in 1936 Holy Cross authorities called a meeting to decide whether to complete it or abandon it. The provincial summed Andre to the meeting. Andre, genuinely surprised that the authorities had doubts about the future completion, advised them once more.
“It’s not my work; it’s St. Joseph’s.”
Then the old man continued:
“Put a statue of St. Joseph in the middle of the building. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll get it.”
Perhaps in desperation, that very afternoon the Holy Cross authorities did exactly as Andre suggested. Two months later they had enough money to resume construction.
In 2002, while as a pilgrim to Toronto for the last World Youth Day with our beloved Bl. John Paul the Great, I had the privilege of visiting this beautiful oratory, a grand edifice where Christ is adored, where the Word of God shines forth like a “city on a hill” (Mt 5:14), and where our holy patron and father is honored. This magnificent basilica is also where St. André was laid to rest; you can pray at his tomb, just as Bl. John Paul did, and venerate his heart which is displayed in a separate reliquary.
Then, in 2008, I went back with my family as part of a tour group en route to Quebec. In the bottom right-hand corner is a photo of my grandmother praying in St. André’s private oratory were he daily served at Mass and received Our Eucharistic Lord. He also had a tiny room built in his private oratory; he slept in a tiny loft literally above the altar.
If you want to learn more about St. André, whom many call the Apostle of St. Joseph, you can read Brother Andre: All He could do was Pray by Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. where I got all the information and quotes in this post.
Lord our God, friend of the lowly, you gave your servant, St. André Bessette, a great devotion to St. Joseph and a special commitment to the poor and afflicted. Through his intercession help us to follow his example of prayer and love and so come to share with him in your glory. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.
St. André Bessette, Apostle of St. Joseph, pray for us!
(Side note: I just wanted to tell you the story of how I took the above picture of the Basilica. As I said, I visited the Basilica Oratory in 2008 with my family as part of a tour group that went from Toronto to Quebec. We had finished praying in the oratory and touring the grounds, and I was already sitting comfortably inside the bus—which was parked near the main doors—waiting for the rest of the group to return from the bathrooms or gift shop. I looked at my watch and saw that there was 10 minutes left before the bus was scheduled to depart. At that moment, I made a decision. I grabbed my camera and sprinted down what I’m sure was hundreds of steps to take a few pictures of St. Joseph with his basilica in the background. Then I ran back to the bus, fearing that it would depart without me. Now, if running down hundreds of steps was a piece of cake, running up hundreds of steps was a piece of….ummm, welll….something else. Even if I had been in shape [which I definitely was not], it would have been quite difficult and extremely painful—which it was! Thanks to the assistance of St. Joseph, I staggered my way back to the bus, though I nearly passed out, and made it to my seat just as the doors closed.)
Day 7 of our novena.
And notice the inscription on the base of St. Joseph’s pedestal: Ite ad Ioseph (“Go to Joseph”, Genesis 41:55)