Brother André


2329305370058663828

Millions of Roman Catholic pilgrims climb the 283 steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory – praying on their knees.

In the early days of my AIDS diagnosis I used to go to a “healing mass” at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne Street here in Toronto.  I can’t say I wholeheartedly believed there was much hope for a cure but as long as continued life accompanies my skepticism, and I’m still sucking air, I’ll remain interested in all manner of healing.

St. Joseph’s Oratory, spiritual home of Brother André, is like Montréal’s Our L of L, only much, much bigger and a great deal more famous.  It is where thousands of Montrealers will gather this weekend to watch as the Pope declares Brother André a saint.

Regardless of your mode of travel to Montréal, approaching the city from the west affords a view of the large dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on the Côtes-des-Neiges slope of Mont-Royal.  It’s across the road from Collège Notre-Dame where, for many years, a man born Alfred Bessette in 1845 (he was later given the name Brother André) worked as a porter – a not-so-glorified doorman – for the student priests.

Brother André claimed a strong devotion to St. Joseph and eventually he was given permission to fund-raise for a shrine to St. Joseph.  The first structure was built in 1904.  Church authorities permitted a room to be added to the chapel and Brother André was instructed to live there so as to be able to receive pilgrims seeking prayer.  He received the ambulatory sick during the day, while evenings were devoted to visiting anyone who could not leave home.  In 1914 construction began on what would eventually be known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory. By the 1920’s over one million pilgrims visited each year and Brother André’s prayers, through St. Joseph, were credited for hundreds of cures.  (There are displays of antique crutches left there many years ago.)

Lest you think L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, and its beautiful gardens, are only for the devout a few months after my brother Craig died in 2007 I went there one hot August evening with Craig’s partner, Claude, and two of his friends to hear the church’s music director play the massive pipe organ as accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film – the fourth or fifth such silent move night that year. It’s a building that can’t be missed and, once there, shouldn’t be missed.

But, alas, what would a Roman Catholic celebration be without a sexual abuse scandal? That’s the risk when nothing is done about a systemic problem!