As a young man, Alfred Bessette was given the job of doorman at CollÃ¨ge Notre-Dame, where he spent 40 years scrubbing floors, holding doors, and nursing the sick.
On Sunday morning, this man was humble no more, as nearly a thousand Catholics packed the crypt church of St. Joseph’s Oratory to watch on giant screens as Pope Benedict XVI officially canonized Brother AndrÃ© — the second Quebec-born saint.
“He wasn’t a high-falutin preacher. He didn’t write big tomes of theology. He simply listened to people,” Father Charles Corso said. “He went and visited the sick. And it’s that ordinariness that attracts people.”
The man who was to become a saint was born in 1845, in a small town outside Montreal. After being orphaned at the age of 12, he grew up to be a young man of feeble health but intense spirituality. This eventually led him to the Order of the Holy Cross in Montreal. He came bearing a letter from his pastor which read, “I am sending you a saint.”
Over his years at CollÃ¨ge Notre-Dame, Bessette developed a reputation for healing the sick. Word of miracles began to spread, although Bessette always denied that he possessed any healing powers.
In 1904, Bessette and his friends built a small chapel on the slopes of Mount Royal in honour of St. Joseph. The 15-by-18-foot space was soon insufficient to contain all the people coming to visit him. Construction of a much bigger church, St. Joseph’s Oratory, began in 1924.
The push to have Bessette made a saint began soon after his death in 1937. It was a long road; Brother AndrÃ© was declared blessed in 1978 and venerable in 1982, but to be made a saint he also needed to have at least two miracles “proven’ to his name after death.
The canonization is much-needed good news for the Catholic Church, which is suffering from declining attendance and scandal.
“It’s good to have a positive, good-news story,” Father Corso says. “But unfortunately there will always be scandals. We don’t see this as a balancing of the scales.”
In the parking lot of St. Joseph’s, the foreign license plates were evidence that this was more than just a Montreal affair. Tour buses lined the sidewalk, and the oratory teemed with pilgrims. Over this week and the next, thousands of visitors are expected to come — both to the oratory this weekend and to next weekend’s ceremony at the Olympic Stadium.
“We think we’re going to sell 40,000 or 50,000 tickets,” said Luce Dion, communications director for the Oratory.
She hopes at least some of these tourists will come back, and provide a permanent boost for Montreal as a destination for religious tourism.
“I think it is going to help people to rediscover Quebec’s religious heritage,” she said.
In addition to tourists, there were many people at the Oratory who came to give thanks and pay their respects to the man whom many credit with healing either themselves or their loved ones.
“Two years ago I had pain in my legs and hips, and I couldn’t walk properly,” reveller Kim Lim said. “I came here and I prayed to Brother AndrÃ©, and now I am healthy.”
“I am a witness. It’s a miracle.”