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Plainfield - In 1863, Alfred Bessette was far from home and working long shifts in factories, aggravating his already poor health.
At 18 years old, the impoverished and illiterate young man had moved from outside Montreal, Quebec, to the village of Moosup to find work.
For four years he toiled in various mills, including the American Woolen Co. on Route 14, on farms and in factories in neighboring Danielson and Putnam, and in other hard jobs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, before returning home to be nursed back to health by his grandmother.
He would return to eastern Connecticut decades later, this time as Brother André, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, to visit his brothers, a sister and their families.
Throngs of people waited for him. They wanted a touch and a prayer from the "Miracle Man of Mount Royal." In 1937 millions attended his funeral services in Montreal.
This October, hundreds of thousands will honor Brother André at a celebration in Montreal's Olympic Stadium after Pope Benedict XVI officially declares him the 11th Canadian saint.
"It's amazing to think that we have a saint among us, one who lived right here, who has relatives here," said Sister Blanche Cadotte of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, now serving at All Hallows parish in Moosup.
"People still have a great devotion to him, still pray to him. As far as this parish, it's on a daily basis," Cadotte said. "How fortunate we are to have a saint of our own time and to have had generations have known him, have contacted him and have benefited from his prayers or his intercession."
Comes to work in the mills
Immediately upon his birth in Saint-Grégoire, Quebec, in August 1845, Bessette was baptized for fear he would not survive. He struggled with ailments, primarily stomach problems, until his death at 91 in January 1937.
Bessette and his nine siblings - two others died at an early age - were orphaned in 1855 when their father, a laborer, died in an accident while working in the woods. Their mother died two years later of tuberculosis.
The brothers and sisters were split up among relatives. Alfred went to live with aunt Marie-Rosalie and her husband, Timothée Nadeau, in Saint-Césaire. Devout from an early age, he focused on his prayers, particularly to Mary and Joseph, as his mother had taught him.
Because of the family's poverty and his own ill health, his studies were short-lived. He apprenticed in a bakery and for a cobbler until he and a friend, Napoléon Parent, like thousands of others from French Canada, took a train to New England to work in the mills. Two of his brothers, Claude and Léon, and a sister, Léocadie, would later settle in Sterling and over the border in Rhode Island and raise large families whom Brother André would visit on frequent trips to the region.
Information on Bessette's time in eastern Connecticut is sparse. Biographies concentrate on his life after returning to Quebec and working at the Collège Notre-Dame, a newly established boys school in Montreal.
The pastor of his parish in Saint-Césaire wrote a reference letter to the head of the school, declaring, "I'm sending you a saint," according to "The Life of Brother André: The Miracle Worker of St. Joseph," an autobiography by C. Bernard Ruffin.
In 1874, at 28 years old, he entered the Congregation of Holy Cross, working as a doorman and occasionally as a barber. He often met with sick students. He took the name André in recognition of the priest who wrote him the recommendation letter, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Credit to St. Joseph
The first documented case of a miracle was three years after Brother André joined the congregation.
A Brother Aldéric of France had cut his right leg to the bone and ignored the wound. It became infected and he risked losing his leg. On a trip to the school for a meeting, he asked Brother André to bring him "a little oil from St. Joseph's lamp, that oil that he had told marvels of," according to an English translation of an account Brother Aldéric wrote for the college newsletter.
He rubbed the wound with oil, wrapped his leg and prayed to St. Joseph for two days, removed the bandage and saw a dried, scarred wound.
Brother Aldéric credited St. Joseph, but also mentioned Brother André, who shortly thereafter was also credited with healing a student who was bedridden with a high fever.
Gradually, thousands of documented cases were attributed to Brother André, who shunned the recognition and credited St. Joseph. At his request, those seeking help left piles of crutches, braces and wheelchairs as a tribute to St. Joseph.
In 1910 major newspapers began reporting and documenting the testimony of the afflicted and the cures.
By this time, Brother André had been seeing people in a trolley car station set up across the street from the school. He later held scheduled hours in a small chapel at what became St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal, a shrine he dreamed of building for St. Joseph but which was not finished until decades after his death.
A miracle recalled
As a young boy growing up in Knowlton, Quebec, Jules Bessette, 82, now of Coventry and the father of Day staff writer Claire Bessette, knew about Brother André, a distant relative.
Jules Bessette was 3, he remembers, when his uncle, Hornidas Coderre, and his baby brother, Lucien, made a trip to ask for Brother André's help. Coderre had been injured in an accident and Lucien suffered from what was presumed to be polio.
"He was suffering something bad," Jules said of his brother. "At one and a half years, no one knew at the time what he had, but every time you touched his leg he howled."
So in 1930, Jules' uncle, brother, stepmother and father visited Brother André in the chapel at the oratory.
"What I was told, my uncle was sitting there with Brother André in this little chapel and was telling the story and told him he was hurting awful, and Brother André put his hands on his head and it never hurt again," Jules said in an interview last week.
"The baby was cured right there, too. They didn't tell me much about how. Brother André did something to cure him. The leg was still short by one and half inches, but it never hurt him," he said.
"Stuff like that you can't forget. It's a miracle. Stuff don't cure itself like that," he said.
Barry Nash of Killingly said his mother, Philomene, was born in 1912 with Erb's palsy, leaving her right arm several inches shorter than her left. When she was 10 months old her father took her from Woonsocket, R.I., to Montreal.
"He took her in and Brother André asked what he could do. My grandfather was quite concerned about her growing up and Brother André said, 'You don't have to worry. She'll grow up and marry a fine man and be taken care of very well for the rest of her life.' What got me in the later years in hearing about this is that (my grandfather) was so sure of what Brother André said, he came home and told his wife what had transpired and thought no more about it," Nash said.
Philomene Nash met Brother André once more as a grade-school student at St. Mary's in Putnam. At the end of recess, as the children were lining up to return inside, the nuns had three children with infirmities meet Brother André, who was visiting the school. He said he'd met her before and she would do well, Barry Nash said.
"She went home to tell her dad. It was amazing to her. When she thought about it in the years afterward, she questioned how he'd know her from when she was a baby to when she was a young child," Barry Nash said.
Jules Bessette and Nash continue to pray to Brother André.
"Some of that stuff … it's inside. Sometimes you can't find the words to describe that, what happened," Jules Bessette said.
Process takes decades
Efforts to have Brother André recognized as a saint started soon after his death in January 1937.
It typically takes 40 to 50 years for the process of three stages of canonization, ending in a declaration of sainthood, said the Rev. Edwin Obermiller, assistant provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross at The University of Notre Dame in Indiana. One requirement is to verify miraculous healings that occur after someone prays for intercession from the person being considered for sainthood.
In 1978, Pope Paul VI declared Brother André as "venerable" - a Catholic role model. By May 1982 Brother André was beatified after the Vatican recognized an "inexplicable healing" from 1956 as a miracle.
Last December, Pope Benedict XVI attributed to Brother André's intercession a second miracle healing from the 1990s, in which a family prayed to Brother André for healing of their son, injured in a car accident, Obermiller said.
Few specific details have been made public because the family requested privacy, but medical professionals verified that the healing couldn't be explained by traditional medicine, he said.
Five others, including three nuns, a 15th-century priest and the founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Australia, will be canonized Oct. 17 at the Vatican. A celebration will be held at the end of the month in Montreal.
Obermiller said he suspects Brother André would dislike the attention being given to his memory. The saint-to-be consistently gave all credit to miraculous recoveries to the power of St. Joseph, saying that he was just a man.
Your devotion to Saint Joseph is an inspiration to us. You gave your life selflessly to bring the message of his life to others by showing a real concern for the needy and the afflicted.
Pray that we may learn from Saint Joseph, and from you, what it is like to care for Jesus and do his work in the world.
Source: Sister Blanche Cadotte, All Hallows parish
THE PROCESS TO BE DECLARED A SAINT
1. Investigation: A postulator (advocate) examines the nominee’s life, writings and religious acts. That evidence is presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a special panel of theologians and cardinals. If the case has merit, they are declared “venerable” — a role model of Catholic virtue.
2. Beatification: The Congregation for the Causes of Saints must verify a miracle before beatification. Miracles are considered as extraordinary events produced by God, acting through others and verified by witnesses.
3. Canonization: The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must be presented with evidence of a second posthumous miracle.
IF YOU GO:
What: A trip to Montreal to celebrate the canonization of Brother André Bessette
When: Oct. 29-31
More information: Sister Blanche Cadotte, Daughters of the Holy Spirit at All Hallows parish in Moosup, 860-564-5409; or Vermont’s Green Mountain Tours, 800-877-4311.