St. André Bessette (1845-937) is the first male Catholic saint born in Canada.
St. André 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.
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.