Sunday, December 5, 2010


My friend Ron Wall, from Calgary, Alberta, recently turned me on to a man I'd never heard of: St. André Bessette (1845-937), the first male Catholic saint born in Canada.

St. André it turns out, was born Alfred Bessette to a blue-collar family in Montreal. His lumberman father died when André (the name he took later as a religious) was 9, crushed by a falling tree, and his mother succumbed to TB a few years later, leaving 10 orphaned children. André wandered about (I love a wanderer) for the next 13 years, working  a variety of odd jobs: tinsmith, blacksmith, baker. He emigrated to New England and for a time worked in a textile mill.

In 1867, he found his way back to Quebec, entered the Holy Cross Novitiate, and was eventually assigned to the position of doorkeeper at Notre Dame College. This would hardly strike most of us as a career move, but Brother André stayed for 40 years. Personally, I think anyone who tends a door in Montreal winters for 40 years, even if crabbily, prima facie qualifies for some kind of special place in heaven, but Brother André saw the job as a vocation. He developed a special love for St. Joseph. He worked all day and visited the sick and suffering at night, anointing them with oil from the lamp that burned in front of the St. Joseph altar in the college chapel.

People began to attribute healings to Brother André, though the idea that he possessed special powers pretty much enraged him. He was physically frail and sickly all his life, reputedly subsisting largely on  bread sopped in milk and an occasional bowl of soup. He withstood criticism, ill health, the eventual crush of people wanting to be healed. But there he stood at the door: steadfast, kind, attempting to be true to his vocation of doorkeeper/taker-on of the suffering of others. When he died, as many as a million people reportedly attended his funeral.

It's easy to sentimentalize, but something about this piece on The Seven Crosses of Brother André really got to me: The Cross of Low Expectations, the Cross of Wandering, the Cross of Rejection, the Cross of Others' Suffering, the Cross of Setbacks, the Cross of Our Own Suffering, the Cross of Death. For some of us, the Cross is of High Expectations, which we obscurely feel we haven't quite met, but the rest of them I identified with right down the line and if you're human, and still breathing, you probably will, too.

Maybe it's not so much 40 years as a doorkeeper but 40 years of anything, especially in this Advent season of waiting, that gives us pause. Because we get tired of waiting. We get discouraged when we wait. We start to get scared when we wait. What if we never find our true vocation? What if we wander, restless and hungry, forever? What if our lives never bear the kind of fruit we'd envisioned, or never seem to? Then we wait some more, and the good news is that in waiting with whatever tiny bit of gratitude and good cheer and love we can muster, we help everyone else to bear the waiting. Because in the end--"Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." [John 6:68]

Dawn is breaking. I'm going to pray the Office, get dressed, and walk to 8:00 Mass at St. Francis. May Brother André, with his healing oil, be guarding the door.

REMBRANDT, circa 1650


  1. Heather,
    Thank you for directing our attention to that discussion on the Pope's book-interview. Very interesting stuff.
    A few years ago, I read a biography of Blessed, er, Saint Andre, and my recollection is that the book kind of passed over his pre-religious years pretty quickly. Thanks for putting that period in your post.
    My wife is fond of saying that being a doorkeeper or dying of TB is a sure sign of sanctity. Of course, what she means is that the joyful resignation and humility manifested by the saints in their duties and trials, even the simplest of duties, like keeping the door, is a sure sign of sanctity.
    And as Fr. Tom of the Holy Family Institute likes to remind us HFIs, this is what really counts, fulfilling our duties, accepting our hardships and trials in the best way that we can. It's not about heroic mortifications or miracles or other extraordinary manifestations. Its about doing our very best, for the love of God, at all times and in all situations, in the context of our vocation.
    We silly people are too often saying: If only I were there, or doing that, or being that... No, it's giving our best to God where and what we are now.
    I'll look at that 7 Crosses article. Thanks again.

  2. Yes, we, or I tend to forget that it's not what we do or accomplish on the outside but whether we've given our hearts completely, where they can "rest with Thee"...though I do think that the question of vocation is important. Because we're incarnate and that means we need a place for our creative, emotional, spiritual and even physical energy to rest. Our capacity for love is so huge, sometimes it seems nothing can contain it. And then maybe we get to see Oh okay, I can give this just for today to making my bed, or writing a little Christmas card, or opening the door for someone, or whatever...

  3. Heather you post such thoughtful and insightful
    writings. Higher expectations are what kill me.
    I keep trying to lower them or not have any.
    Living in the moment is so difficult.

  4. Hurray!! Le Frére André!!! Thanks so much for posting on our new saint from here in Montreal :) That you now know of him makes me feel you know a bit more about where I am, in the city otherwise knows as Ville Marie (literally City Mary)
    Now you must come and visit me and I will take you to the Oratory. :)

  5. St. Conrad of Parzham and Ven. Solanus Casey also served as porters. I once thought - naively - that the lot of the porter would have been an easy one. That was before it occurred to me that constant interruption from prayer is among the heaviest crosses of all.

  6. The lives of so many people are a constant source of amazement and a well of inspiration to me and thanks for this tale. I don't know how much of a persons' ability to overcome trials is due to their innate qualities or via divine assistance The revolving door of doubt despondency despair that many go through on a daily basis but who still manage to emerge holding on to astonishing human qualities is really humbling.


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