WEST WARWICK — When Blessed Andre Bessette is canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 17, many faithful throughout the Diocese of Providence, including some who are distant cousins of the future saint, who worked for two years during the 1860s in the textile mills of West Warwick and Eastern Connecticut, will have cause for celebration.
Born in 1845, he was baptized Alfred Bessette in the village of St. Gregoire, Quebec, a small village located east of Montreal, and was the son of a lumberman and a mother who stayed at home to care for the couple’s 10 children. While the family lacked material wealth, they enjoyed a rich spiritual life and a strong faith.
When Bessette was 20, he joined many young Quebecois, including several of his brothers and sisters, who sought work in New England’s thriving textile mills. He returned to his homeland in 1867, following the establishment of the Canadian Federation.
Despite frail health and a lack of formal education, the young man was presented to the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal by his parish pastor, Father Andre Provencal, who noticed the young man’s piety and devotion. Bessette was accepted into the novitiate and given the name Brother Andre.
For more than 40 years Brother Andre served as a porter at Notre Dame College, administered by the Holy Cross Congregation, and performed other jobs for the religious community, such as giving haircuts to the students attending the school.
The young brother had great confidence in St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, and recommended this devotion to all those who sought his counsel, many of whom suffered from physical or mental afflictions or needed spiritual encouragement. Because he wanted St. Joseph to be honored, Brother Andre began construction of a small chapel near the school on Mount Royal in 1904.
As his reputation spread, throngs of pilgrims visited the chapel and met with Brother Andre and soon proclaimed that they were cured of their illnesses. Historians report that the brother made oil from the remnants of church candles, bottled the substance and encouraged those whom he met to rub the oil on their bodies as they prayed to St. Joseph for healing.
Eventually the small chapel could not accommodate the vast number of pilgrims who came to meet Brother Andre and to pray with him. St. Joseph’s Oratory was built and remains a popular destination for those who travel to Mon-treal to seek St. Joseph’s and Blessed Andre’s intercession.
Throughout his life, Brother Andre visited relatives and friends throughout Rhode Island and in Fall River, Mass, where he frequently worshiped at St. Anne’s Shrine, then operated by the Dominican Fathers from the Canadian province who ministered to the French- speaking communicants who had settled in the area and worked in the city’s textile mills.
“He developed a reputation for being able to help people,” recalled John Flanigan, a parishioner of St. Mary Church, West Warwick. “As his reputation spread, he attracted a large following.”
Flanigan noted that his late grandfather, also named John, developed eye problems around 1918.
“It was suggested that he see Brother Andre,”?Flanigan said, adding that his grandfather met the religious brother during one of his many trips to Rhode Island. When Flanigan’s grandfather visited his physician a few days later, the doctor said his sight had been fully restored but could not explain the sudden change in the man’s condition.
“Our family attributes the cure to Brother Andre and divine intervention,” Flanigan said. “That’s the story told in my family.”
Bishop Louis E. Gelineau who grew up in Burlington, Vt., recalled that when he was a young boy, his parents, who were very religious, traveled to Montreal to visit Brother Andre.
“They felt that they were in the presence of a saint.” Bishop Gelineau said. “I remember their excitement.”
The bishop added that his family later made several visits to St. Joseph’s Oratory when he was a young man.
“That was a great thrill for the family,” he said.
Noella Mosunic, a member of Holy Family Parish, Pawtucket, said Brother Andre was a cousin of her grandmother, Hermidee Bessette Johnson, and often stayed at the woman’s boarding house, where she provided lodging and cooked for the millworkers.
“He would go there for lunch; he liked the pea soup,” Mosunic recalled.
“I pray to him every single day,” Mosunic continued, adding that she received a relic and prayer card of the future saint many years ago.
“We’re going to have a saint in the family,” she said, proudly. “The world gets smaller and smaller.”
Julien Bessette, a distant cousin of the future saint and parishioner of Precious Blood Church, Woonsocket, recalled that two of his uncles had met Brother Andre when they were teens.
“My grandmother told them, “You’re seeing a saint,’” Bessette recalled. “Brother Andre was known as “‘The Miracle Man of Montreal.’”