On the morning of Sunday, October 17, tens of thousands of people will be at the Olympic Stadium in Montréal, Canada to watch the canonization of six new saints of the Catholic Church on jumbo screens live from the Vatican. One of those new saints will be André Bessette who built St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal – the largest church in the world dedicated to St. Joseph.
Born Alfred Bessette in 1845 in Mont St. Grégoire, he was one of 10 children of Isaac and Clothilde (Foisy) Bessette. A very sickly child due to stomach problems he still could neither read nor write at the age of 25. After his parents died, he went to live with his aunt & uncle, Marie-Rosalie and Timothée Nadeau.
Later, he was said to have lived for a length of time in Woonsocket, R.I. working in the mills – until it was discovered that he could do so little because of his illness. He also lived and worked in Moosup, CT at the American Woolen Co. on Route 14. Two of his brothers, Claude and Léon, and a sister, Léocadie, later settled in Sterling, MA.
Because of his frailty, the religious community (Congregation of Holy Cross) he entered in Montréal only gave him the position of doorkeeper. He had a great devotion to St. Joseph and would anoint people who came for prayer with holy oil kept near the small space dedicated to St. Joseph. His reputation grew far and wide but he would get angry with any who suggested that André himself had healed them rather than glorifying God through the intercession of St. Joseph. In time, he was given permission to build a church in honor of St. Joseph if he could find the money. And find it he did. Donations poured in.
So what is it about us Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox Christians) with our devotions to saints? St. Paul exhorts us (in Hebrews 12:1) to be confident about our faith journey…because we have “so great a cloud of witnesses”. We have both the witness of their lives and their continued prayer. “Pray directly to God”, you say? We certainly can and do. However, I like to think of the Communion of Saints as my spiritual support group – people who have gone before me – been there, done that, so to speak. If I can ask parents, friends, and fellow parishioners to pray for me, why can’t I ask someone who is already in God’s presence? It is neither idol worship nor putting the saints on a higher plane than Jesus. Some people I know who question invoking the saints have no qualms themselves about keeping photos (and other mementos) of deceased family members on display in their home…some even “talk” to them. Why not, then, have pictures and mementos of heroes of our great faith?
Why does the Church make saints to begin with? The Church does no such thing. Never did. It is God who raises up certain ones for a special purpose. He always has: Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Israel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II and countless others through the ages. The Church simply celebrates God and the great mercies He has shown these people. None of these “made it” of their own accord. Both Jews and Muslims make pilgrimages to the graves of their holy people. Muslims have a great devotion to the Virgin Mary and visit Marian shrines. In fact, a young Muslim sheik in Lebanon recently pushed through legislation that marks the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and asked her to be God’s mother) as a national holiday! Schools and businesses are closed on that day…it is hoped that government entities will soon follow suit.
Back to Brother André…on Sunday, October 31st, Mass will be celebrated in the crypt (at the Oratory) where his body lies. That is the event I would want to be present at. Family members will have reserved seating and with Bessettes, Nadeaus and Foisy in my family genealogy, I am referring to myself as his “petit cousin” – his little cousin. It is the opportunity of a lifetime and already I am invoking Blessed André’s intercession so I can be able to make this pilgrimage. Brother André died in 1937 at the age of 91. One million people viewed his body. Brother André was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982.