Saturday, January 06, 2007

Nothing Much

Today is not only Epiphany; it is also a memorial for Brother Andre Bessette, C.S.C. Since I attended a C.S.C. college for my undergrad, I wanted to say something briefly about him.

The Congregation of the Holy Cross had no idea what to do with Alfred Bessette, later Brother Andre Bessette, when he first came to them. He seemed pretty much useless to them. He had continual stomach problems which had made it impossible for him to hold down a job because it made it difficult for him to do anything but the very simplest of tasks -- and even those not always consistently. Even worse, the Holy Cross brothers are all teachers, and the Congregation is a teaching society; but, despite being 25 years old, the young man could not read or write. The only thing going for him was a note from his pastor, telling the brothers that he was sending them a saint. He was nothing much.

To their credit, they didn't turn him down right away; they took him in, in the hopes that he could contribute more than it seemed he could. They were utterly disappointed in this hope. He was asked to leave, and it was only at the request of a visiting bishop that he was allowed to stay at all. He took his vows, and, not knowing what else to do with him, they made him a porter for a small school -- basically what we would call an elementary school for boys -- and there he stayed, answering the door, delivering mail, and little things like that, e.g., giving haircuts to the boys and cleaning the floors. He did nothing much.

Then one day, out of the blue, Brother Andre asked the Archbishop of Montreal if he could build a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph on a mountain near the school. The Archbishop, no doubt startled by this request, replied that it wasn't possible to go into debt; Brother Andre could build what he could find the money to pay for.

What he built was nothing much; from collecting nickels and dimes Brother Andre managed to scrape enough together to build a crude wooden shed to serve as a sort of shrine. Scarcely more than a box. Brother Andre continued collecting, and later went back to the Archbishop to ask for permission to continue building. The Archbishop, at this point a bit wary that the man might be crazy, asked if he were building the chapel because he saw visions of St. Joseph. Brother Andre assured him that he was only building it because of his devotion to St. Joseph, so the Archbishop gave him permission to continue, but again on the condition that he only build what he could pay for. Slowly pilgrims began to come to the chapel to pray.

He never saw the basilica of St. Joseph finished, although he managed to accomplish a great deal of it in his lifetime. The ultimate result of his efforts was the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal. It is, it must be said, nothing more than a place for prayer, as churches generally are. In the grand scheme of things it is nothing much, even though it is the largest church in Canada. But it goes to show, perhaps, that with God nothing much is sometimes enough.

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