Thousands celebrate newly canonized Brother Andre

Alice Walker
Alice Walker

Olympic Stadium’s postmodern curves have hosted metal concerts, monster truck rallies, and the MLB All-Star Game, but they have rarely formed a cathedral. On Saturday, however, the blue-and-gold plastic seats served as pews as tens of thousands celebrated the canonization of Alfred Bessette, commonly known as Brother André.

The Catholic Church proclaimed Bessette (1845-1937), the founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory attributed with thousands of miraculous healings, a saint on October 17 in Rome. Thirty thousand turned out on Saturday, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Jean Charest, and 58 bishops.   

“He’s more than an ambassador,” said Mayor Gérald Tremblay.  “In Rome, we saw the universal consecration of an exceptional person who transmitted many values to us: the values of justice, the values of love, the values of peace.”

For 40 years, Bessette was the doorman at College Notre Dame, a school run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious order. Though he was frail, uneducated, and not a priest, by the turn of the century his ability to heal had become internationally renowned. Toward the end of his life, he received hundreds of visitors a day. In the six days after his death on January 6, 1937, more than a million people paid respect to his remains.

“[St. Paul said], ‘An artist makes the most beautiful paintings with the smallest of brushes,'” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte in his homily. “It is not a small saint who has been canonized, but a great one. A very great one.”    

Though people widely agree on his virtue, his congregation, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, is the target of one of the latest Catholic sex abuse allegations.  

On Friday, the Superior Court of Canada ruled that Shirley Christensen’s lawsuit against a priest who she claims abused her and against the Archbishop of Quebec should return to the Quebec Superior Court. Others have made similar allegations.

Earlier last week, Robert Corneiller, a representative of the Committee of Pedophile Victims at College Notre-Dame, suggested that the group should have received some of the proceeds from Saturday’s event.  

“[Instances of sexual abuse] are so sad,” said Father Charles Corso, a spokesperson for the Oratory, in regard to sex-abuse scandals generally. “They should not have happened and are embarrassing. So we take them in, we accept them, and we move on, not to forget them, but to ensure that whatever harm was done can be repaired.”

The Oratory is Bessette’s primary legacy. He began to envision a shrine to St. Joseph, whom he believed was the source of his ability to heal, in the late 19th century. The first small chapel was built in 1904, and the current basilica was completed in 1956, almost two decades after Bessette’s death. As a commemoration of Bessette’s ministry, the Oratory remains an international tourist attraction and pilgrimage site.   

In cooperation with the city, the Oratory put ads in the Montreal Metro and on streetlight posts which read “Brother André: A brother. A friend. A saint.” Representatives handed out handkerchiefs to Saturday’s crowd, which they waved during their applause.   

The ceremony was an embellished traditional Catholic Mass.   One of Bessette’s suitcases, a plan of St. Joseph’s Oratory, and some discarded crutches from one of his healings were alongside the altar, which stood in what used to be centre field for the Montreal Expos. Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal, a children’s choir from College Notre-Dame, provided music.

Though the crowd wore more habits and rosaries than caps and jerseys, it was not limited to the Catholic faithful.   

“André came from a point of view of unconditional acceptance,” Corso said. “He accepted believers, non-believers, people of other faiths. He was interested, of course, that they eventually come close to God, but he just accepted them and listened to them.”

A number of leaders from other faiths attended the ceremony, and the diverse crowd left the stadium in a good mood.   

“At the very end, where … people were cheering,” Corso said, “I started to laugh. I was laughing out of pure joy.”

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