Isaac and Clothtilde (Forsy) Bessette had 8 children, four of who died in infancy. The 4th child, Alfred Bessette, was born on August 9, 1845 in St. Gregoire d’Loerville, 40 kilometers south of Montreal. Because he was so frail, they baptized Alfred the very next day. Alfred was always a frail child. His father died when he was nine, and his mother when he was 12. Alfred moved during his teenage years to the United States to work in the textile mills in Connecticut and some of the other North-eastern United States. He returned to Quebec and settled in St. Cesaire where he connected with his pastor Fr. Andre Provencal. Fr. Andre notices the remarkable gentleness, generosity, and devotion of this young man and introduced him to consider discerning religious life. Fr. Andre writes to the Provincial of the Holy Cross Congregation recommending Alfred to him writing, ‘I am sending you a saint.” The community initially rejected him due to his poor health. Fr. Andre’s spoke to his bishop and thus the bishop intervened.
On December 27, 1870, Alfred became a postulant of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and entered the novitiate. From then on we know Alfred as Brother Andre, named after his pastor Fr. Andre. He is given the ‘obedience’ of doorkeeper, infirmarian, and lamp tender at the College of Notre Dame. His other work included doing errands for the community members, gardening, laundering, and becoming to barber to the brothers in the community. He made his first vows August 22, 1872, and his final vows on February 2, 1874.
Brother Andre always had a great devotion to St. Joseph and confidence in him. As he greeted people at the door who were waiting to see one of the priests or other members of the community, Brother Andre would listen to the people as they waited. He had a compassionate heart and in guidance, he would recommend them in prayer to St. Joseph. He would often anoint them with lamp oil. People began to claim healing and cures of their ailments, but Brother Andre continued to reject any credit to these healings as coming from him, but attributed everything to St. Joseph. When an epidemic broke out in Montreal, and near the college where Brother Andre worked, he volunteered as a nurse with the superior’s permission. Not one person died under his care.
Soon great numbers were coming to see Brother Andre and not the other priests and religious in his community. This caused much turmoil and doubt about Brother Andre and his ministry to the people who came to see him. Even some of his community members considered him a charlatan. He was no longer permitted to meet people at the community doors. He was sent to the train station to meet them there. He was persecuted for doing God’s humble work.
In 1878 a French magazine published the anecdotal cures that were happening through Brother Andre. As a result, many people came to see him and wrote to him. In the end, up to 80,000 letters were received and Brother Andre needed 4 secretaries to keep up.
Drawing from Brother Andre’s devotion to St. Joseph, was his dream to build a chapel in his honor. The Community of the Holy Cross purchased a piece of land along the side of Mt Royal. On October 19, 1904, a small chapel was built, with the permission of the community. Brother Andre was assigned as a full-time caretaker of this small Oratory leaving the college after 40 years of service. This immediately became too small for the people who were coming to visit and dreams of a Basilica Oratory filled Brother Andre’s heart.
From 1909 – 1936 Brother Andre greeted thousands of pilgrims who came seeking hope, reassurance, and healing. In 1924 construction of a Basilica began near the original chapel. Many difficulties arose in its construction, but with the intercession to St. Joseph and the generosity of many people: architects, workmen, and donator’s it was completed. Today you can visit this magnificent structure and experience the vision, dream, and trust of St. Joseph that Brother Andre held in his heart.
On January 6 1937 Brother Andre died. After 91 years of devotion, love, and service to God Brother Andre found his reward with God. At his Vigil Wake and Funeral Mass there were over one million people who passed the coffin to pay their respects to this humble and hidden saint. On November 7, 1940, the cause for his beatification was opened. On November 9, 1960, Pope St. John XXIII introduced the cause for his canonization. On June 17, 1978, Blessed Pope Paul VI declared Brother Andre Venerable. On May 23, 1982, Brother Andre was Beatified by Pope St. John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI canonized him as St. Brother Andre on October 17, 2010.
St. Brother Andre had concern for the dignity and reverence of every human person in their Body and Spirit. He is a great advocate in his love for the deepest meaning of the Theology of the Body, unfolding every person’s brokenness and opening them to the glory of their true identity and meaning, as a son or daughter of the Father. He was God’s humble instrument in restoring their wholeness through the powerful intercession of St. Joseph, by bringing them to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Father Vince Gulikers was ordained in 1985 for the Diocese of London, Ontario. He is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Sarnia and St. Michael Parish in Brights Grove. Father Vince has attended three courses with the Theology of the Body Institute and attended the TOB & Priestly Identity retreat.