Franco-Americans know Brother Andre Bessette by his religious name of Frere Andre.

Many grew up learning about the humble traditions Frere Andre practiced as a prayerful man and a healer.  He was a French-Canadian religious with the Holy Cross order.  His pious life laid the foundation for the growth of the magnificent St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, a church which attracts an estimated two million visitors every year. Frere Andre (1845-1937) was born Alfred Bessette in a small town near Montreal.  He was an orphan at 12 years old when his father was killed in a logging accident and his mother died with tuberculosis a few years after.  Moreover, Frere Andre struggled throughout his life with frail health, although he lived to be 91 years old.

He was ordained as a religious brother in the order of the Holy Cross when he was 28 years old. His life of piety and humility will be recognized when he is canonized as the first saint in the history of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, best known in the US as the order that founded the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Although the canonization Mass will be held on October 17, 2010, in Rome, other religious celebrations will continue in Montreal. Father Robert Vaillancourt of Lewiston will lead a bus pilgrimage from the Portland, Maine, Diocese, to Montreal, on Oct. 29, to participate in the planned celebrations. He will concelebrate Mass with Montreal Cardinal Jean-Cluade Turcotte to be held on Saturday October 30th in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

My husband recalls learning about Frere Andre’s devout life when he was only 8 years old while he happened to be in Montreal with his parents.  He remembers the occasion because of the special historic significance of the date May 8, 1945, or Victory in Europe Day.  His family coincidentally happened to be in Montreal when Victory in Europe was declared.  My husband says he vividly recalls the city’s church bells ringing while the population of Montreal flooded the streets to celebrate the end of World War II in Europe.  He recollects watching thousands of Montreal citizens walking to the shrine at Oratorie Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal, to pray and give thanks for the Allied victory in Europe.  His mother, Rose, spoke to him in French about how the Oratory was a special church and a prayer shrine, built to honor Frere Andre’s particular devotion to St.  Joseph.  Franco-Americans regarded Frere Andre as a living saint, even before he died in 1937.   Rose predicted his eventual canonization. “Il sera un saint,” she said.  (He will be a saint).

It’s possible Frere Andre may have visited St. Jospeh’s Church in Biddeford when he was in New England during the early 20th century while he was visiting French-Canadian relatives.  Norman Beaupre of Biddeford is a Franco-American writer and retired professor who would like to see an engraved plaque placed at the St. Joseph Church to honor Frere Andre’s visit and devotion to St. Joseph.  “When Frere Andre learned there was a St. Joseph’s Church in Biddeford, he made it a point to stop there on his way home to Canada,” says Beaupre.  “I hope some day there will be a commemorative plaque at St. Joseph’s Church to mark his historic visit,” he says.

Father Vaillancourt says his French Canadian grandmother met Frere Andre, around the year 1910, when she was a young child visiting the St. Joseph’s Church in Montreal.  “My grandmother said she vividly recalls asking Frere Andre to pray for her,” he says.  “She remembers asking for his blessing,” he says.

St. Joseph’s Oratory’s impressive size and Renaissance architecture is a long way from the church’s humble origins.  Frere Andre began building the church in 1904 as an unassuming wooden chapel. Over the years, the church grew into a shrine in honor of St. Joseph, Canada’s Patron Saint.  Frere Andre’s tomb is located inside the Oratory.   Unfortunately, Frere Andre died before seeing the Oratory completed.

Check the Portland Diocese website at where details about Father Vaillancourt’s pilgrimage are posted.