The pint-sized, illiterate doorkeeper who set in motion the construction of one of the world's most impressive religious structures, Brother André -- born Alfred Bessette on August 9, 1845, in rural Mont-Saint-Grégoire 50 km southeast of Montreal -- was a living legend before the turn of the 20th century.
Yet it's not entirely clear how his mythical status started, let alone who was the first to claim Brother André changed his or her life.
What we do know is thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics flocked to Notre-Dame College in Montreal in between 1875 and 1904 to meet a doorman who reportedly healed the sick through prayer and touch, a five-foot-tall monk who spent thirty years juggling janitorial work with miracle-making, an orphan almost rejected from the congregation he would come to serve for 40 years over concerns his chronic stomach problems and headaches would be a burden.
Tales of spontaneously healed smallpox and cured tuberculosis, heart disease, and cancer rumored to occur after visiting the diminutive monk, baffling physicians. Some doctors went as far as to write letters to Brother André's congregation affirming their inability to explain patient remission.
But while a trail of abandoned crutches and wheelchairs grew in Brother André's healing wake, he maintained that he had nothing to do with these thousands of "cures" - "I have no gift nor can I give any," he said - and yet, he was treated like a saint by the masses, including by women who, according to biographer Micheline Lachance, were not Brother André's favorite gender. Keeping with the sexist mores of his time, Lachance claims the fairer sex "got on his nerves."
Reputation and Popularity
Regardless, praises multiplied at the turn of the century and as the years went by, his reputation began to spread beyond the borders of Canada, enticing yet larger numbers of visitors to show up at the College's doorstep, begging for a miracle.
But not everyone was in awe. As pilgrims grew in number, so did the Congregation of the Holy Cross' contempt, concerned that Brother André, an uneducated orphan, would embarrass them.
Select superiors felt compelled to point out that his uneducated, servant status did not entitle him to offer spiritual guidance, reminding André to keep rank. To them, his role was to do dishes, wash floors, fetch laundry, and answer doors, not heal the sick, much less inspire reverence.
But a significant chunk of the public didn't seem to care what he did during his day job. They kept coming in droves, asking for his counsel, compassion, and alleged healing touch. And in the midst of his congregation's attempts to thwart his mission, Brother André kept his head down, silently accepting criticism, scorn, and humiliation while refusing to ignore pleas for prayer sent his way. But the influx of visitors lingering around the college was becoming a problem, so much so that the lineups eventually disrupted operations and irritated students' relatives. The requests were so many that it took six to eight hours of Brother André's day, every day, just to get through them all.
Brother André thought up a solution. To drive traffic away from Notre-Dame College, he invested the little money he had to erect a tiny, roofless chapel across the street from the school with the help of his supporters in 1904. The chapel, erected on Mount Royal, was built in honor of St. Joseph, the saint Brother André thought was the real channel of these miracles, miracles he called "acts of God." Consistently invoking the husband of Virgin Mary in his appeals for healing, in Brother André's eyes, he was, at most, "St. Joseph's little dog."
In concert with Brother André's congregational detractors, health authorities eventually got involved, launching an inquiry in 1906 to get to the bottom of all these "miracles." After all, not everyone believed anything miraculous was happening, accusing the monk of conning the public.
But their complaints fell on deaf ears: Montreal's Archbishop Bruchési took no disciplinary action against Brother André even though it was requested by his own congregation. Rather, Bruchési wanted to watch his evolution. The health inquiry was also eventually dropped. It seemed as though nothing could stop the orphan monk from pressing on.
A Change in Status
By February 26, 1910, Brother André's chapel received the blessing of the Pope. And that's when Brother André's "lowly" status changed permanently.
He was released from a lifetime of drudge work, of errand boy/housekeeping duties, given free reign to devote himself to his mission full-time, finally earning the right to preside over an oratory his own order originally opposed. And so persisted the expansion of what was once a small, roofless chapel into one of the most beautiful religious sites in the world, St. Joseph's Oratory.
From a sickly, lowly, "burdensome" laborer to a miraculous minister who inspired the creation of the highest point in Montreal, little did Brother André know his beating heart would one day be encased in glass at St. Joseph's Oratory for millions to contemplate. Little did he expect that 10 million faithful followers would petition for his canonization and that the Church would hold his character personally responsible for the devotion he evoked in life, and in death.
In 1982, the Vatican declared him beatified. And as of October 17, 2010 - more than 70 years after Brother André passed away at the ripe old age of 91 on January 6, 1937 - the miracle man of Montreal was officially immortalized in history books as a saint.
Sources: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Gazette, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The Miracle Man of Montreal, Library and Archives Canada, St. Joseph's Oratory, Le Devoir, Le frère André, The Vatican