If one figures a very modest ten thousand cures — an estimate by his Holy Cross Congregation — for the roughly sixty years when his healing ministry was in full swing (and cures were very possibly more than that), St. André Bessette can confidently be termed one of the greatest healers the Catholic Church has produced among her saints. Yet when his friends wondered aloud what they would do after his death, he assured them, “I’ll be able to help you a lot more after my death, because I’ll be much closer to God than I am now.” In 1937, when Pope Pius XI was in danger of death, ninety-one-year-old André offered God his life for the pope’s.
“But the Oratory still needs you,” someone complained.
“When someone does good on earth,” the venerable old healer remarked with typical impersonality, “it’s nothing in comparison with what he’ll be able to do when he gets to Heaven.”
Those words began to come true as soon as Pope Pius XI had unexpectedly recovered from a deadly condition and Br. André had quietly died. In his lifetime it had been said that perhaps his most extraordinary gift was that of inspiring others with something of his own boundless confidence in God. In the seven days of his funeral services, the more than a million people who filed by his bier showed something very like his fervor. Even a dying man was brought in on a stretcher.
Conversion had always been the cure he sought most avidly; and while conversions are healings outside the scope of this book, let it be noted here that the confessionals were full day and night.
But there were physical cures too. An asthmatic on the point of death after six years of sufferings is healed instantly; likewise, a four-year-old child is held up by his father, touches the dead saint, and is instantly able to take his first steps. A young girl in a wheelchair is another who hears the saint’s silent command with the ears of faith — and is healed. Eight-year-old Arthur Ducharme, in an accident five months earlier, has had the nerves and muscles of his right arm cut to the bone by shards of glass. The hospital surgeon’s recommendation: amputation.
That step vetoed by the mother, the arm heals as far as the wound’s closing is concerned but remains inert; a sling is necessary to support it. Various treatments have been useless; there is no way to rejoin the severed muscles and nerves in 1937. Young Arthur touches the saint’s body and is instantly able to use his arm. He demonstrates by carrying chairs around the sacristy. There remains a certain flabbiness, but the limb will serve him for all his needs in the years to come, even playing hockey.
The first of several days’ triumphal rites for the humble brother is broadcast January 6, the day André dies. Among the listeners is retired policeman François Lecuyer, of Montreal. Lecuyer, in nineteen years as a traffic policeman working near the shrine, has become so crippled by rheumatism in his joints that he has had to retire early as an invalid. No treatments have helped. Periodically his feet swell, causing terrible sufferings. At such times he can walk only with crutches or a cane. As the Lecuyer family respond aloud to the radio prayers, the father, who has been praying to Br. André as to a saint, from the moment he heard of his death, feels himself sicken. His coloring becomes like that of impending death and tears run down his face. Painfully the family haul him out of the living room; they fear he is having a heart attack. But as the prayers end, Lecuyer sits up. He reaches for his cane, his crutch, realizes they remain by the radio in the living room, gets up without either, and begins to walk. He says later it is only after seven or eight minutes that it hits him that he is cured and that Br. André has obtained this grace from God.
Excitedly he calls to his wife to bring his shoes, and the still- shaken woman exclaims, “You know very well you can’t put on your shoes! Your foot is too swollen.” But Lecuyer’s foot slides easily into the shoe. Together he and his wife go to the Oratory, where he squeezes the saint’s foot in thanks as they pass, part of the endless line of people who ignore the January cold to pay their respects to the body of a saint. Later Lecuyer remarks that while he was praying along with the radio, “I had never prayed like that. At that moment I had confidence as I had never had it before.” Similarly, listening to the same service, a deaf boy who joins in the prayers is instantly healed.
On January 8 a mother rushes to the corpse. Her daughter is in extreme danger in a hospital from peritonitis. She prays and touches to the body several objects of piety which she will give to her daughter to evoke faith in André’s intercession. Arriving once more at the hospital, the word is still, “The child won’t live through the night.” But by evening she is already on the mend.
The end of the funeral ceremonies by no means halts the cures. From January to October that year, letters testify to 6,700 favors, 933 cures. And that is only the beginning. A few years later, 1941 to 1943 for instance, the Oratory receives 10,408 letters giving thanks just for cures. Of these, 6,610 specifically cite Br. André as intercessor. A medical bureau along the lines of the stringent one at Lourdes is set up to examine the most extraordinary cures. Eight physicians under direction of Br. André’s old doctor, Lionel Lamy, select to investigate 791 impressive cases of claimed healing in the next fourteen years, that is, 1944 to 1958. Of these, forty prove so beyond any possible medical or human explanation that they are set aside to be submitted to Rome, already moving to beatify the man who laughingly called himself “St. Joseph’s little dog.” Here is one:
Beginning in 1933, a young girl of fourteen, Thérèse Cousineau, suffers more and more from a deviation of her spinal column. From this period her stomach also refuses to keep down food. It is necessary to give up the plaster corset that aims to squeeze her into normal shape. Then the deformity of the shoulder increases and a hump bends her into a hunchback. Beginning in 1937 she suffers convulsions. On January 11, four days after the saint’s death, Thérèse is brought to his coffin; but she only gets worse from the effort. Still as March begins, she and her parents begin a novena following precisely the use of St. Joseph’s oil as Br. André often used to recommend it, but asking Br. André’s intercession specifically. Again she gets worse and is unconscious nearly three hours. The physician believes it is the end, and she receives the last rites. But, beginning the next morning, her stomach starts functioning.
She is hungry, eats, and digests easily. The spinal column, however, is still as before. On March 22 the family begins a second novena, begging daily, “Br. André, obtain her cure!” Her sufferings she offers God as a prayer for His servant’s beatification. Four days later, the pain is less. Thérèse sleeps. Waking, she is much better. “Doctor,” she challenges, “I bet I’ll be cured at the end of this novena.”
The month dedicated to St. Joseph ends. So does the novena. The morning of April 1, as her mother rubs her back with the oil beloved of Br. André, suddenly, with loud pops and cracks, the bones of the spinal column simply realign themselves. The hump is gone. Besides the delirious joy of Thérèse and her parents over the complete (and permanent) cure, her cousin Albert, last superior of Br. André, is unspeakably grateful to his old friend for one more favor.
The cures are not all local. One child’s inexplicable healing takes place in Africa. And the estimated three million annual visitors to the Oratory come from all over the world. In the early days of his ministry they asked simply for “the porter” or “Br. André.” After 1978 their prayer requests addressed Venerable Br. André, his heroic virtue verified after long, thorough study of his life.
Beatification came only four years later. The cure chosen from among so many was a miracle given by God twenty-four years earlier to someone who for much of his life had never heard of Br. André. Joseph Audino was an immigrant, with his family, from Italy to the United States. Living in Rochester, New York, in 1950 he made a pilgrimage to the eastern Canadian shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Extending his trip to Montreal, he followed the suggestion of a hotel porter that he shouldn’t miss an important site for visitors to the city called the Oratory of St. Joseph on Mount Royal. Only there did Audino learn about another porter, Mount Royal’s Br. André.
Flash forward to 1954: Joe Audino began having health problems. By 1957 they had intensified. By the next year, 1958, the advanced form of reticulum cell sarcoma was throughout his body. Radiation could no longer keep pace with the cancer. Joe was face-to-face with death, his diagnosis “terminal” and his death expected within thirty days. He was in too much pain to make a confession or receive Communion, he says. He simply lay hopelessly in bed, too weak to walk, with a football-size liver. In his troubles he thought of Br. André. And no matter how bad he felt, he never stopped praying for Br. André’s help. “I knew he’d be able to help me,” he says.
He consented to an experimental treatment that never helped anyone else. But shortly after, he was cancer free. His doctor Philip Rubin, chairman of radiation therapy at the University of Rochester Cancer Center, says, “There is no clear scientific explanation for his cure.”
Rubin also wrote in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine with a second doctor who was involved, that the treatment given Audino “is essentially of no use in the treatment of reticulum cell sarcoma and can lead to death. Remission at this stage of the disease (other than that seen in the case of Mr. Audino) is unknown.” Dr. Rubin was so struck by this patient’s inexplicable return to health he was willing to testify to a miracle. In 1965, two years after the five-year cancer-free landmark, new, non-involved doctors began going over the case. Finally a dossier of 585 pages of testimony, medical reports, and 150 x-rays was packaged and sent to Rome for study by medical men there. The whole medical end of the process was not concluded until June 1980. That’s when the Italian consultants agreed with Dr. Rubin that what had happened to one of their countrymen through invoking the prayers of a little French-Canadian porter of established heroic virtue was explainable only as a miracle.
Next a theological commission verified intercession in Joseph Audino’s case was clearly André’s, the only one invoked for prayer, not André’s and St. Joseph’s. Beatification following in 1982, prayer pleas now went to Blessed André until October 2010. Following the same kind of intensive study and ultimate acceptance of another medical miracle, the featherweight porter was canonized. Pope Benedict XVI presided at the ceremonies for Saint André Bessette. (Details of this authenticated miracle were kept under wraps due to an altered media climate, in which miracle recipients were sadly often hounded, losing any hope for privacy.)
To those who know Him, it seems God definitely has a sense of humor: in this case, the first canonized saint for the Holy Cross Congregation of educators was their sole largely illiterate member. In other ways, too, the story of St. André Bessette definitely proves truth is far more astounding than fiction. Here was an uneducated French-Canadian, too frail to succeed in any work he tried until, at twenty-five, he gave himself full-time to God’s service. He then spent decade after decade — living to ninety-one — like the stoutest pack-horse carrying souls to God and God’s healing to souls. Long years after asking on his deathbed, “Will you pray for my conversion,” he continues an avenue for God’s healings. Credit for those owed purely to St. André’s prayer intercession is still often hard to disentangle from credit due to a mix of his prayers and those of St. Joseph. Considering their friendship, it seems a sure thing André likes it that way.
image: Jean Gagnon [CC BY-SA] / Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a chapter in Nothing Short of a Miracle. You can read more about St. André Bessette and his many miracles, as well as countless other modern saints, in Patricia Treece’s Nothing Short of a Miracle, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.