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Brother André: Simply a Saint

By Bob Fisher, The Philosophical Traveller

Religion has always played a critical role in the history and heritage of many nations. This is particularly true of Québec, the predominantly French-speaking province of Canada.

St. André de Montréal

When Pope Benedict XVI officially approved bestowing sainthood on a simple carpenter from Montréal on February 19, 2010, he completed the final step in a process through which this man of humble origins had already been declared “venerable” and subsequently “blessed”. His canonization was the ultimate recognition of his life’s work.

Brother André is only the third saint in Québécois history; and the only one to have lived in modern times.

Previous to Brother André, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys 1620-1700, and the Founder of the Congregation of Notre-Dame was declared a saint. And a year after her death, Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771) was also declared a saint by the Vatican. She was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, more commonly known as the “Grey Nuns”.

But there are other saints a bit closer to home — at least not too far from where I live. They are known as The North American “martyred saints”.

These were the eight Jesuit Brothers who found themselves in the middle of the war between the Iroquois and the Huron. There are a number of reasons why these Jesuits were seen as a threat, primarily to the Iroquois who saw them as allies of the Hurons. The Iroquois perceived the Jesuits, rightly or wrongly, as helping to organize resistance to Iroquois raids among the Hurons. In addition, some have speculated that the arrival of the Jesuit Brothers in New France coincided with the arrival of new diseases from Europe, primarily smallpox, and consequently the Jesuit Brothers suffered from guilt by association.

The Jesuit martyrs were canonized by Pius XI in 1930. See a link to The Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario. See also Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. And there is also, by the way, a national shrine to the martyrs in Auriesville, New York.

Sainthood, saintliness, holiness, and enlightenment

All four descriptors describe the legacy of Brother André, but the veneration and higher honours afforded individuals like him merit further


It is a fine distinction perhaps, but the Roman Catholic Church does not create a saint, but through the extensive process of canonization, it formally recognizes a saint. Furthermore sources I have consulted differ somewhat, the theological statement of faith is that all who eventually achieve the ultimate state of grace in Heaven are in fact also saints because they have “perfected” holiness.

Generally speaking however, a “saint” is someone who has been canonized if they lived after the year 1000AD. Furthermore, in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church deleted a number of saints from its liturgical calendar because of a lack of historical evidence affirming their sainthood.

The concept of holiness, however, is at the core of most religions; although that term is somewhat ambiguous and therefore difficult to define. On the other hand, the individual who exhibits exceptional holiness is a universal figure in many of the world’s religions, even in pre-Christian times. The enlightened one is perhaps more correctly described as “illuminated” because of the halo or aureole — a circular light — that has been depicted in religious iconography as surrounding the head of the individual. Such sacred figures were seen as pure beings who had attained the highest degree of perfection.

In his writings, for example, Homer describes a light surrounding the heads of heroes in the field of battle. In Asian art, in particular the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, flames — halo-like — are often depicted as surrounding the head of the venerated individual. This is also the case in Chinese and Japanese art as well as in some Islamic art. The light emanating from the body, usually the head, of exemplary individuals has also been depicted in images of what have been referred to as Hindu saints.

The narratives of extraordinary human beings who accomplish equally extraordinary tasks, and the attendant light surrounding them, would appear to be universal in its imagery.

And in the vernacular of the 21st century, it is not uncommon to refer to extraordinary individuals as “saints”; which reminds me of the core lesson of Le Petit Prince: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Such enlightened individuals are also seen as exemplary — usually charismatic leaders in a spiritual sense — special individuals who in some way are able to intercede on behalf of others.  But the concepts of sainthood and saintliness can vary from religion to religion; and herein lie the “hues and shades” of holiness and sanctity as they apply to such extraordinary individuals. What is also universal, however, is that certain “moral” traits are seen as especially worthy of veneration.

In his article “Anatomy of Sainthood”, Jack Crabtree of the McKenzie Institute of Portland, Oregon comments:

“Our English word ‘awesome’ most closely approximates ‘holy’. If someone is holy, something about him moves us to hold him in awe. In the presence of someone who is holy, we will be somewhat intimidated, silenced, subdued, and restrained; because we will be made to feel our lowliness, to feel the humbleness of our own stature and position. We will feel compelled to respect him and to grant him the honor and recognition that he deserves. There is an aura about the holy person, a spookiness or feeling of heaviness which causes us to walk softly and not to be obtrusive, to know our place and not to act presumptuously, and to be respectful and deferential. In other words, the holy person has an aura about him that makes us stand in awe of him. Perhaps we do not stand in gaping wonder; rather we may look upon him with quiet, considerate respect, but in a kind of awe nonetheless.”

To read the full article, click on the following link: “The Anatomy of Sainthood”.

A curious symbol of the history and culture of Québec

From a social history perspective, Brother André is somewhat of an anomaly in Québec because in the centuries-old struggle between the State and the Church in New France, which became especially critical in contemporary times during the lead-up to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the State and the Church in Québec often found themselves at cross-purposes.

The motto of Québec, Je me souviens (I remember), is another of those expressions that “lose something in the translation”. The phrase also has a certain implied ambiguity. The motto is enshrined on The National Assembly buildings in Québec City (other provinces have “provincial legislatures”) and symbolically and somewhat enigmatically conveys various levels of meaning.

To some, the motto is a reference to the fact that the Québécois became “a conquered people”, following the apocryphal 20-minute battle on The Plains of Abraham in Québec City in 1759 in which England and France fought over an expansion of their colonial empires. As history has shown, England won; and the destiny of North America was transfigured.

In Québec, there are those who say that the Québécois were not conquered but rather abandoned by the bourgeoisie, many of whom returned to France when they saw the “writing on the wall”. But for many, the term also suggests a deep historical attachment to French culture — long-standing traditions, and memories which have not been forgotten — and consequently the motto created considerable controversy in Canada.

In 1978, when nationalism was again on the rise in Québec, the guiding principle was changed from its former La Belle Province to Je me souviens. Today there is perhaps no greater populist expression and reminder of the history and heritage of the people of Québec than the “new” motto which can seen on license plates throughout Québec.

Furthermore, la survivance — another term that loses in the translation, meaning roughly cultural survival, on many levels. Cultural survival in its broadest terms has play a key role in the evolution of Québécois society. And according to Claude Bélanger of the Department of History of Marianopolis College in downtown Montréal:

“Without a doubt, the social institution which exercised the greatest influence and had the most impact on Québec was the Roman Catholic Church…. [but] was also echoed by the new social scientists that were trained in Québec in the period immediately following the Quiet Revolution. This group, which sought the modernization of Québec and championed the cause of radical change, condemned widely the obscurantisme that had characterized Québec in the period before the 1960s, and blamed the Church for much of the ills that many believed afflicted Québec in the contemporary era.”

As witnessed by other “distinct societies” throughout the world, social, cultural, and linguistic survival became the renewed and universal elements in the collective memory of the Québécois.

To read Bélanger’s summary of The Quiet Revolution, click here.

In addition, because for a long time Québec was a primarily agrarian society, cultural survival — including most importantly language survival — was also reflected in what came to be called the revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradle). Because of the population growth in what was then known as Lower Canada (primarily French-speaking); and which doubled every 25 years, the clergy therefore faced enormous challenges in terms of serving what they saw as the needs of their parishioners. The ratio of priests per capita also quickly declined especially when Québec began to emerge as a major force on the world stage through La Francophonie, an international political, social, and cultural organization in which significant numbers of the populations of member countries are francophones.

In due course, the narrative of Brother André, and those who identified with him and supported him, eventually brought him sainthood. He became a populist saint in the hearts and minds of many people even those beyond Québec’s borders, but also was remembered as an ordinary working class man, and an iconic figure who represented the hopes and aspirations of a distinct society.

A Holy Cross Brother

Born into poverty and of very fragile health, Brother André was orphaned at the age of 12. However, he exhibited an intense spirituality early in life. And although he never rose in the ecclesiastical ranks (until he achieved sainthood of course ), he worked primarily as a concierge at Notre Dame College, a job that included many menial duties.

But to be canonized as a saint, there had to be proof of miracle cures, and these were reported initially by word of mouth throughout the Catholic population of Québec. However, throughout his life Brother André steadfastly refused to take credit for any of them. He did however demonstrate an equally intense devotion to St. Joseph and frequently recommended that saint as an intermediary for anyone suffering physical diseases.

When brother André (born André Bessette) died in 1937 at the age of 91, more than a million people filed past his coffin in tribute to a man who would one day become a saint.

Travelling with the Catholic Media

I have been on many media or press trips; however none have been quite as focused or “inspiring” as the one called “Montréal, The City of a Hundred Steeples”.

As a bilingual Canadian, Montréal  is my favourite city in North America and — as you may have already guessed — in some respects it is my “spiritual” home away from home.

Montréal, and this goes for much of Québécois culture, is always among the avant-garde. You only need to look at the artistry of the  Cirque de Soleil to understand Québec’s unique worldview and its intellectual courage. There are many other examples of its contemporary outward-looking worldview, including the fact that it has one of the healthiest and most dynamic music industries in the world. This too is the result of the historical-sociological-political history of what has been formally recognized as a “distinct society” by the Government of Canada.

As we moved from place to place in Montréal, my Catholic colleagues and I engaged in a mutual exploration of such issues as the nature of spirituality and “faith”, the use of the term “The Church”, and the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church in the 21st century. They did not shy away from any of these issues, but spoke of them with conviction and concern. We also dined well; after all we were in Montréal!

For me, it was a bit like being a lion in a den of benevolent Daniels.

Faith-based philosophies and other worldviews always give me reason to explore the unconscious elements at the core of our species, especially those that speak to our diversity and commonality. I believe in science and the scientific method; but I also believe in the indomitable and catholic spirit of humankind.

I also like Mother Teresa’s statement:

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

Audio components for this story

Father Marcel Demers of the Basilique Notre Dame in Old Montréal, talking about the state of Catholicism in Québec.

To hear the above clip, click here.

Nelson and the Blessing of the Motocyclettes at Saint Joseph’s Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

Organ music from the Mass in the Chapel of the Saint Joseph Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

“Make A Joyful Sound,” from the Mass in the Chapel of the Saint Joseph Oratory

To hear the above clip, click here.

Iconographic images and imagery to augment this story

Click here to see additional photos taken at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal. In order to view the images as a slideshow, click on “Slideshow” in the upper right-hand corner.


St. Joseph’s Oratory

The Oratory museum

Quebec Catholics (CBC)

Catholocism and the French Language, Henri Bourassa

The Roman Catholic Church and Quebec

The Quiet Revolution

Le Devoir: “Un patrimoine en danger”

The Catholic Church of Quebec — “Heritage in Danger” (English version)

The Saints of Canada (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

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