BANGOR, Maine — A French Canadian Roman Catholic brother reputed to have healing powers has been named one of six candidates who will be canonized saints by the Vatican later this year, Pope Benedict XVI announced Friday.
Born Alfred Bessette to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette on Aug. 9, 1845, in a small town near Montreal, Quebec, Brother Andre Bessette is on track to become Quebec’s first saint and the first saint to come from the Congregation of Holy Cross, a Catholic order of priests and brothers. His canonization is set for Oct. 17, according to published reports.
Known popularly as the “miracle man of Montreal,” Bessette joined the Holy Cross congregation in 1874. He worked as a porter, or doorkeeper, and barber at a Montreal school run by the congregation. It was there that his reputation as a healer and miracle worker took hold.
Bessette’s biographers recount tales of crippled rheumatics healed and fever-stricken schoolboys made suddenly well, often with the help of “St. Joseph’s oil,” a mixture that Bessette rubbed on wounds and sick limbs after burning it under a statue of the saint. He died in 1937 at age 91. More than a million people attended his wake and burial.
Bessette’sbody is entombed at the oratory, and his heart is stored separately in a reliquary. Modern pilgrims climb the dozens of stairs to the entrance on their hands and knees acknowledging the disabled who did the same to seek out Brother Andre. The basilica there has a display of discarded canes, crutches and braces.
The announcement of Bessette’s canonization was welcome news in Maine, home to thousands of people of French Canadian descent, including the Rev. Robert Vaillancourt, director of vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
Vaillancourt, who grew up in Lewiston and whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Quebec, is among those who have a personal connection with the soon-to-be saint, who in 1904 founded L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph and the shrine on Mount Royal in Montreal.
“We used to go there as a family every year,” Vaillancourt said Friday in a brief telephone interview, adding that he has taken his niece and nephew there on several occasions and has led 32 youth pilgrimages there. This year, he plans to bring a group of seminarians and others to the oratory, he said.
“I have brought many youth there who were very deeply moved” by Bessette’s story and his legacy, he said. For Vaillancourt’s family, Bessette represents “the transmission of faith from one generation to another.”
Vaillancourt said that his great-grandmother, who emigrated to southern Maine from Quebec, died in Brunswick while giving birth to his grandmother. Afterward, his great-grandfather moved back to Quebec and his grandmother was raised in Brunswick, where she was taken in by neighbors.
Each summer, Vaillancourt’s grandmother would visit her father in Quebec, where he would take her to the oratory and shrine that Brother Andre founded in honor of St. Joseph, Canada’s patron saint.
During one such visit, when she was about 10 years old, Vaillancourt’s grandmother met Brother Andre, who touched her head, he said, adding, “We always link her to the shrine. It’s a special connection.”
Asked whether he would attend the canonization, Vaillancourt said, “Those are my intentions for sure.”
According to several biographies, Bessette was declared venerable, the first step toward sainthood, by the Catholic Church in 1978, and then was declared blessed, the next step, in 1982.