Alfred Bessette was born in Mont-Saint-Grégoire, Quebec (then Canada East), a small town situated 40 kilometers south-east of Montreal. He was so frail when he was born that the curé baptized on an emergency basis and then conditionally the following day. His was a working class family; his father, Isaac Bessette, was a carpenter and lumberman and his mother, Clothilde Foisy Bessette, saw to the education of her ten children (two others died in infancy). In 1849, with employment scarce and his family living in poverty, Alfred's father decided to move to Farnham (in Quebec) where he hoped to earn a living as a lumberman. Tragically, he lost his life in an accident, crushed by a falling tree, when Alfred was only nine years old. His mother found herself widowed at the age of forty with ten children in her care. She died of tuberculosis within three years, and Alfred found himself orphaned at the age of twelve. He was sent to live with his mother's sister, Rosalie Nadeau, and her husband Timothée, who attempted to establish Alfred in various trades, but the boy's fragile health (which would afflict him throughout his life) made sustained manual labor difficult.
From his earliest days, Alfred exhibited an unusually intense spirituality. He would often spend his scant free time praying before a crucifix or evangelizing his friends, and his many self-imposed penances drew the admiring rebuke of his gentle aunt, who was concerned that the boy was endangering his already poor health.
When he was 20 years old, Alfred joined many Canadians who were emigrating to the United States to work in a textile mill of New England, then operating at full output to supply the needs of the Union army in the American Civil War. Though his health was not robust, he worked doggedly. "Despite my limitations," he said, "There was no one who worked harder than me." When the Canadian Confederation was formed in 1867, he returned to his native country.
Call to devotion
The Pastor of his parish, Fr. André Provençal, noticed the devotion and generosity of the young man. He decided to present Alfred to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal, writing a note to the superior, "I'm sending you a saint." Although he was initially rejected by the order because of frail health, Archbishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal intervened on his behalf, and in 1872, Alfred was accepted, and entered the novitiate of the congregation, receiving the religious name of Brother André, by which he was known for the rest of his life. He made his final vows on February 2, 1874, at the age of 28.
His great confidence in Saint Joseph inspired him to recommend this saint's devotion to all those who were afflicted in various ways. On his many visits to the sick in their homes, he would recommend them in prayer to St. Joseph, and would anoint them lightly with oil from the lamp in the college chapel which always burned before the St. Joseph altar. People claimed that they had been cured through the prayers of the good Brother and Saint Joseph, and they were grateful their prayers had been heard. Brother André steadfastly refused to take any credit for these cures, and, although usually a gentle man, he was known to become enraged at those who suggested that he possessed any healing powers. Because he wanted St. Joseph to be honored, in 1904 Bessette began the campaign to erect a chapel to honor the saint.
Brother André's reputation grew, and soon he was known as the miracle worker of Mount-Royal. He had to face the attacks and the criticism of numerous adversaries.He had the strong support, however, of the diocesan Church, and thousands of cures without apparent medical explanation made him the object of popular acclaim. In 1924 construction of a basilica named Saint Joseph's Oratory, began on the side of the mountain, near Bessette's chapel.