The world-renowned basilica dominating the southwestern Montreal skyline started out as a small wooden chapel on Mount Royal. The founder was a simple brother who lived a childhood of poverty, and was orphaned at age 12 along with 11 brothers and sisters. His name was Alfred Bessette (1845-1937), a physically frail man with little education, yet with a big heart and healing touch that would one day inspire millions. Growing up a poor French Canadian orphan, he was forced in his teens to be a migrant worker in the textile mills of New England. He returned to his native Québec province in 1867. Three years later he joined the priesthood, but because of his weak condition was relegated to the responsibility of a doorman. Once accepted as a novitiate of the Holy Cross Order at age 25 he was given the name Brother André, a name which took on spiritual consequences when his healing prayers to Saint Joseph for others began to manifest physically. His blessings were most appreciated by the poor and sick who would come to Brother André in a saddened and oftentimes desperate condition. He invited them to pray with him to Saint Joseph to obtain favors, and in a short time many people reported that their prayers were being answered, yet always when Brother André was not present. He was a modest man who took little credit for his efforts, solely attributing all the healing power to Saint Joseph. In 1904, Brother André helped pay for a small wooden chapel by cutting hair at the Holy Cross. The small chapel was crowded from the beginning and too small for the amount of people who flocked to the site. Brother André moved into an apartment over the chapel a few years later to accommodate the steady flow of pilgrims. By 1914, a major basilica was being built near the small chapel, but construction was halted several times due to financial constraints. Brother André died in 1937 at the ripe old age of 91 and was buried in the crypt of the unfinished church. A million people came to his funeral during a bitter winter storm. The magnificent Saint Joseph’s Oratory was finally completed in 1955. Brother André was beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, the final honor before being declared a saint. Although the basilica is a powerful tribute to Saint Joseph, devotees from all over North America come as much to honor Blessed André’s shrine and pray for sickness cures.
The Catholic Church regards the Oratory as the world’s most important sanctuary devoted to Saint Joseph. As father of Jesus Christ, Saint Joseph is represented as the model of workers, guardian of virgins, support of families, terror of demons, consolation of the afflicted, hope of the sick, patron of the dying, and protector of the Church. Brother André had a strong devotion to Saint Joseph based on their mutual experiences as impoverished exiles and unskilled laborers. Despite the passing of Brother André, the sanctuary still retains its reputation as a healing center. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive each year to prostrate themselves at the long flight of stairs leading up to the Oratory. The middle staircase is constructed of wood so pilgrims may ascend the staircase on their knees. Canes, crutches and other objects hang between pillars in the Votive Chapel, as well as on the walls of the little wooden chapel founded by Brother André. His loving and ever-optimistic spirit endears the legacy he left as a humble servant to Saint Joseph whose ability to inspire others became legendary.
Getting to Saint Joseph’s Oratory
Saint Joseph’s Oratory is located on the slopes of Mount Royal, in the southwest region of Montreal. The address is 3800 Queen-Mary Road, a few blocks from the Côte-des-Neiges metro station. Saint Joseph’s Oratory overlooks the twin sprawling cemeteries called Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and the Cimetière Mont-Royal on the backside of Mount Royal. The little wooden chapel is on the grounds next to the massive oratory.