A Saint, and an Inquiry into the Sins of His Brothers

By Ian Austen
New York Times
October 29, 2010

St. Joseph’s Oratory basilica in Montreal, where Quebecers gathered Oct. 17 as Brother André entered the sainthood at the Vatican.

About 125,000 medical miracles have been attributed to Brother André.

Brother André.

MONTREAL — At least 50,000 Quebecers are expected to gather Saturday for something most rarely do: attend a religious service.

But the Mass at the Olympic Stadium to celebrate the elevation of Brother André, a school porter and faith healer who died 73 years ago, to sainthood is one of many contradictions surrounding religion, and Roman Catholicism in particular, in Quebec.

By most measures, the province is the most secular in Canada. Only 15 percent of Catholics regularly attend church and Quebecers have long rejected the church's teachings on birth control, marriage and homosexuality.

But that does not mean they have entirely abandoned its influence five decades after the province's Quiet Revolution removed the Roman Catholic Church's control over education, health care and social services.

"In Quebec, people are not specifically anti-Catholicism, but they are anti-clericalism," said Gilles Routhier, a professor of theology at Laval University in Quebec City. "Brother André doesn't particularly represent the church's power. He was a simple, illiterate, modest person. People recognize themselves in Brother André."

But amid the celebrations over Brother André's canonization — which took place this month in Rome — another issue looms. The police have opened an investigation into accusations of widespread sexual abuse of students at the Collège Notre Dame decades after Brother André worked there. These, to a large degree, have been advanced by a former member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the order to which Brother André belonged and that controls the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The order has said it will cooperate with the police investigation. Officials have apologized for acts they said "should never have occurred" and have said the congregation "will bear the responsibility of indemnifying all victims concerned."

Just before the canonization in Rome, Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, the archbishop of Montreal, paid Brother André what might be the ultimate compliment in Quebec. Rather than compare him to a religious or historical figure, Cardinal Turcotte turned to the province's greatest hockey hero. Brother André, he told Le Devoir, a Montreal paper, is "the Maurice Richard of religion."

The youngest of 10 children from a poor family, Alfred Bessette, as he was originally known, was an orphan at 12. Somewhat unhealthy and poorly educated, he became a brother with the Holy Cross congregation in 1870 and was given the lowly position of porter at Collège Notre Dame.

Over time, he developed a reputation as someone who was open to speaking with the poor. People who were ill claimed that meeting with Brother André brought a cure, a suggestion he always rejected.

He often met the afflicted at a streetcar station by the school. But as their numbers grew, he used their donations to build a chapel, or oratory, to St. Joseph on a hillside opposite the school.

The tiny chapel grew into an immense basilica that took 30 years to complete and that still dominates the city's western skyline. Newspaper accounts in 1937 estimated that one million mourners passed by Brother André's coffin.

By some accounts, 125,000 medical miracles have been attributed to Brother André. But Donald L. Boisvert, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, said that whether or not any of them actually occurred was almost beside the point.

"He provided people with a listening ear and was also able to offer them some medical hope at a cheap price when there was no medical care for many," he said.

The attention now focused on Brother André renewed calls for a police investigation into the abuse accusations, which were first detailed almost two years ago by The Gazette, Montreal's English-language newspaper. The source for many accusations was Wilson Kennedy, the order's former provincial steward for the Province of Canada, a position similar to that of chief financial officer.

After 21 years with the order, Mr. Kennedy resigned in 2006, dismayed by what he called its lack of effective action against members who sexually abused minors and its loss of focus on the needs of the poor.

Before leaving, Mr. Kennedy asked a lawyer who represented the congregation for 24 years to document incidents that might leave it open to lawsuits. The resulting nine-page letter lays out several cases of abuse of minors. One man, according to the letter, was secretly paid about $245,000 after being abused by three brothers when he was a student at Notre Dame. Another brother who, according to the lawyer, was "rarely involved with minors" was known to "give away bronzed giant medals of Brother André in exchange for sex."

The college is still controlled by the congregation, but brothers and priests no longer teach or administer its operations. Boarding ended in 2001.

Mr. Kennedy said he would not be among the tens of thousands of worshipers at Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

"Religious life is not what they said it is," he said. "It has ruined my faith. I don't have any faith in this institution. How do you make sense of God in all of this?"


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