It was an ordinary Sunday until the Mass ended and a parishioner went up to the ambo to speak. He shared the story of a man who had been severely injured by a falling tree and who had gone to seek healing from Brother André in Montreal. The injured man, who had been told he would never walk again, was fully healed. You could have heard a pin drop as this parishioner spoke. Then came the zinger: “I know this story is true,” he said, “because that injured man was my father.” (Brother André wouldn’t have taken any credit – everything he did, he said, was God’s work and grew from his own devotion to St. Joseph; he claimed he was simply St. Joseph’s “little dog.”)
Not much had been expected of Alfred Bessette, this humble, uneducated man of delicate health and small stature who barely made it into the Holy Cross order in Montreal. Yet, one person saw his potential and gave him a chance: his steadfast faith and willingness to do the most basic tasks made an impression. He took “André” as his religious name.
People started noticing that this brother’s prayers and the holy oil he gave to the sick were starting to cure them of various ailments. Word spread, and soon he needed a place to see the many who flocked to him. All the while, he had a dream: to build a chapel to his beloved St. Joseph. Years passed. A chapel was built. But before long it was far too small for all the visitors, and construction began on a basilica. Against the odds, Brother André lived to a great age – long enough that when he died in 1937, his body was brought to the basilica, St. Joseph’s Oratory, so people could pay their respects. Amazingly, a million people came!
He was canonized in 2010, and we now know him as St. André Bessette. (I don’t think he’d mind us still calling him Brother André, though.) He is the patron of family caregivers, and I can’t think of a better person for that role. Anyone who has been a caregiver for a family member – a child, a sibling, a parent, or others – knows that it involves a lot of faith, patience, fortitude and prayer. There are days when you might want to walk away. It’s that hard. And yet, there are moments of beauty, laughter and light that get you through the tough parts and bring much comfort and peace over time.
Like Brother André, whose early years with the Holy Cross order were spent on menial tasks, family caregivers handle the basics: feeding, diaper changing, laundry, soothing, just sitting with the one who is sick and passing the time of day. It’s not rocket science, but it is life changing for everyone involved. It’s a gift, even though it may not feel like it much of the time. It’s also a vocation, and it may be one of the most important things you do in your life.
When you’re struggling, when you feel that you don’t have much left to give, you can always call on Brother André. He’ll be with you, and with St. Joseph’s help he will give you strength to get through the next few minutes, hours and beyond.
St. André Bessette, pray for us!
Anne Louise Mahoney is managing editor of Novalis. She is the editor of Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here and the author of I Hope, a book for young children.