Bessette, who is in his 80s, is awaiting Brother André’s canonization with excitement. His two sisters were among those who attended the beatification in Rome.
His excitement is mirrored throughout the town of Mont Saint-Gregoire, Que., the birthplace of Alfred Bessette, who took the name Brother André upon ordination. Townspeople are hopeful that pilgrims and tourists will once again grace their streets.
In the past, St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal would celebrate Brother André’s August birthday by bringing busloads of people to this rural town, about three km from Saint-Grégoire-Le-Grand parish. But over the years interest in Brother André had gradually waned until there weren’t enough pilgrims for the trip, said Fr. Laurent Landriault, the parish pastor.
“People came from everywhere for the pilgrimage — but it went from 100 people to 50 to 20 until they stopped having it 10 years ago,” Landriault said.
With the upcoming canonization of Brother André, the Oratory staged a new pilgrimage on Aug. 29 to the Saint-Grégoire parish for a celebration of Mass in honour of the soon-to-be saint. Landriault said the renewed interest from outsiders may help awaken youth in the region to Brother André’s historical importance.
“The older generation really understands and believes in the miracles,” Landriault said. “But the younger ones, when I visited the schools, many didn’t even know who he was, unless they were related to him and heard stories passed down.”
Bessette said it’s true the older crowd is more fervently devoted. But he thinks the canonization will create some meaning for the younger generation, even though they don’t have the luxury of seeing miracles “en masse” to believe.
“It’s true that we didn’t understand the miracles, but we had no choice but to believe when people who arrived in Montreal with crutches — believers and non-believers — would leave without them, and when throughout this region there were repeated healings that medicine couldn’t explain.”
The times were also different, he said. Religion was the force that kept French culture and language alive and respect for religious figures among the lay faithful was widespread.
Bessette’s rosary is a rare piece of memorabilia, but businesses in Mont Saint-Grégoire are stepping up their creativity to fashion marketable souvenirs. A soap boutique, for example, proudly advertises a new soap called “Purity” in Brother André’s honour.
(Girard is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)