Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

stjosephoratory-0810-33fStatue of St. André Bessette at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, a basilica with a giant copper dome built in honor of St. Joseph, patron saint of Canada. The shrine contains a museum dedicated to Brother André, who died in 1937. (Photo by Bob Mullen)

MOOSUP – Newly canonized Saint André Bessette is the first male, Canadian-born saint and the first saint who was a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He is also the first saint to have resided for any length of time in Connecticut.

On Nov. 7, at All Hallows Church in Moosup, Norwich Bishop Michael R. Cote was principal celebrant at a Mass of thanksgiving for the honor bestowed upon Brother André. "He had almost no possessions, no education and was barely able to write his name or read, but he never lost his faith," Bishop Cote said.

Father Francis Johnson, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford in residence at St. Helena Parish, West Hartford, traveled to Saint André’s Oct. 17 canonization in Rome with a group led by University of Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins. Holy Cross is the founding order of Notre Dame.

"It was a terrific experience," said Father Johnson. "I’d never been [to Rome] before. It was done at St. Peter’s Square on a partly cloudy morning, and 150,000 people were there. We could see the Pope; we were about halfway down."

The former Blessed Brother André was one of six saints canonized that day, but for Father Johnson and many other Connecticut residents, his canonization represented something special.

"André worked in Connecticut as a young man," Father Johnson explained. "He was one of many French-Canadians coming down looking for work."

André was born Alfred Bessette on Aug. 9, 1845, in Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, near Montreal. Orphaned at 12, the slight, frail Alfred tried his hand at several occupations in Canada before joining a wave of French-Canadian emigrants to New England during America’s Civil War. From 1863-67, he lived in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, working at textile mills and on farms. Connecticut towns where he worked include Moosup, Putnam and Danielson. Some accounts also mention Willimantic, Eastford and Hartford as possible areas where he worked.

"Not much is known about this period except that his vagabond existence never changed; it seemed he would always be a wanderer," writes Brother André Marie in his article "Saint André Bessette: Montreal’s Miracle Worker," found at catholicism.org/br-andre.html.

Upon his return to Canada, Alfred was attracted to religious life and joined the Congregation of Holy Cross. The weak, barely literate man was given the name Brother André and the job of porter, or doorman, at College Notre Dame.

It was soon discovered that he had the gift of healing, which he attributed entirely to the intercession of Saint Joseph. In 1914, inspired by Brother André’s devotion to Saint Joseph, the congregation began building what would become Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. Today, more than two million pilgrims a year visit the site. After Brother André’s death in 1937, his body was placed in a black sepulcher in the back of this shrine to Saint Joseph.

Sister Blanche Cadotte of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, now serving at All Hallows Parish in Moosup, was one of 48,000 people to journey to Montreal for a celebration and two-hour Mass for Saint André at Olympic Stadium on Oct. 30.

"That was beautiful," she said. "Many Holy Cross priests, brothers and sisters were there. The Mass was amazing. You could really sense the pride of the people as they waved white handkerchiefs. The Cardinal [Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte] said the homily partly in French and partly in English."

Richard Desrosiers of Moosup was unable to join the busload of pilgrims to Montreal, but he recalls hearing about how his grandmother was healed by then-Brother André many years ago.

"I was just a little kid, probably about 8 years old, when my aunt told me the story of their trip to the Oratory in Montreal," he said. "My grandmother, Clara Desrosiers, crawled up the stairs and left her crutches. She came home, and she didn’t have crutches after that. She was a strong Catholic."

At Notre Dame High School in West Haven, campus ministry director Gail Bellucci celebrated the canonization with a daily "André Minute" from Oct. 1-22, which included a morning prayer and silent meditation. During Brother André Week Oct. 18-22, senior peer counselors greeted students and visitors at the front door, as Brother André had in Montreal for most of his life. Teachers were also asked to "catch" students doing something positive and "report" them for it.

Several administration and faculty members of the school also traveled to Montreal for the Mass at Olympic Stadium.

"His life was driven by compassion for his brothers and sisters, and his devotion to God," Bishop Cote said at the Nov. 7 Mass in Moosup. "He was an example of unconditional trust in the Lord."

Michael Gannon, correspondent for

The Four County Catholic, newspaper of Norwich Diocese contributed to this story.