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Brother André Bessette and the Rev. Henry Maillet, both members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, arriving at the Vachon family homestead on Bradford Street in Bennington. (Vachon Family photo)

 

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New Canadian saint had local connection

The Bennington Banner, Oct. 18, 2010

 

MARK E. RONDEAU  

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — Brother André Bessette, who became famous during the first decades of the 20th century as a humble healer and spiritual guide in Montreal, had a close friendship with a Bennington family and periodically spent time at their home on Bradford Street. 

 

At an open-air ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica  in Rome on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Brother André (1845-1937) and five others. Bessette became the first officially recognized saint of the Congregation of the Holy Cross religious order and the first Canadian-born man declared a saint.

 

Pamela Vachon-Duprea, and her brother Tom Vachon, both of Bennington, along with their older brother, Richard Vachon Jr., also of Bennington, grew up hearing stories about Brother André from their father, Richard Sr.

 

“My dad was so focused on Brother André all his life. We heard the stories being told to people whether they wanted to hear it or not,” Pamela said with a laugh during an interview Friday. “But at our age at the time it didn’t mean anything. But we do know that Brother André meant a great deal to the family and the ancestors, my grandparents.”

 

The family has two photographs of Brother André and the Rev. Henry Maillet, also a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, arriving at what was the Vachon family homestead at 219 Bradford St. Judging by the photos, this visit occurred in the latter part of Brother André’s life, possibly the early 1930s.

 

Maillet, who served for a time as pastor at a Catholic church in Manchester and also oversaw the mission church in East Dorset, was a very close friend of Joseph T. and Alice (Houran) Vachon, Pamela and Tom’s grandparents.

 

 

“Fr. Maillet was a close friend of Brother André. Brother André was in Canada,” Pamela said. He “used to come down to visit Fr. Maillet. Fr. Maillet would bring Brother André to my grandparents.”

 

Passed down in the family is an engraved cane with Maillet’s name on it, apparently given to him when he retired from active ministry. After his retirement, Maillet came and lived at the house on Bradford Street, with two unmarried sisters of Joseph Vachon, Onia and Leda. Onia had been housekeeper for a priest in Windsor and so knew what was required to care for a resident priest.

 

Joseph Vachon and his family — including Pamela and Tom’s father, Richard — lived next door in a house on Warn Street. 

 

‘I am nothing’

 

Alfred Bessette, the sixth of 10 children, was born in a log cabin in the Quebec town of Saint-Grégoire. Little in his early years hinted at his later influence. Orphaned by age 12, without schooling, beset by poor health, particularly digestive problems, he had a hard time becoming established in a trade. 

 

He worked in a wide succession of jobs — assistant shoemaker, farm hand, blacksmith, wood-hauler and construction worker. For a time he crossed the border into New Hampshire to work before returning to Quebec.

 

An employer who obverved his very devout nature spoke of Alfred to a priest, who recommended him to Montreal’s College of Notre Dame, operated by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Alfred — who was given the name André when he joined the congregation — was not educated enough to become a priest and so became a brother. Still suffering ill health, he was given one of the lowest jobs available to a brother, porter, or doorkeeper, at the college. 

 

In addition to his other duties, “often his hospitality entailed spending much of the day receiving and consoling the poor and the sick, as well as visiting homes and hospitals. Word spread quickly when many of those with whom he prayed were healed,” according to a biographical article on the Congregation of the Holy Cross Website.

 

Brother André encouraged people to pray with confidence for healing, while remaining open to God’s will. He encouraged sick people to receive the sacraments of the church and to seek a doctor’s care. Though fundamentally joyful, Brother André at times was seen weeping along with visitors who told him of their sufferings.

 

Growing crowds led his superiors to relocate the visits to a small train station across the street. Despite becoming known as a miracle worker, he insisted, “I am nothing ... only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”

 

His deep devotion to St. Joseph led Brother André to envision a substantial shrine to him in Montreal. He received permission in 1900 to raise money for the shrine — St. Joseph’s Oratory, not fully completed for decades. The first building on the spot was constructed in 1904, and in 1909 Brother André was named caretaker of the Oratory, spending his days seeing sick people who came to visit and evenings visiting the sick out in the community.

 

According to the Congregation of the Holy Cross Website, it’s estimated that by the 1920s more than one million pilgrims visited the Oratory every year and hundreds of cures were attributed to Brother André’s prayers every year.

 

Quiet visits to town

 

Despite his fame, when Brother André came to Bennington there were no crowds of people to greet him. People generally didn’t know when he arrived or when he left. “It was quiet,” Tom said.

 

Brother André would come down on the train and a family member would go and pick him up at the train station and then take him back to it when his visit was over. “I don’t know how frequently he visited, but he would come down and he and Fr. Maillet would get together,” Pamela said.

 

“I’m thinking now that Fr. Maillet and Brother André did get together quite often,” Tom said, “because this was almost like their second home when they were together down here, so they all became very, very close friends.”

 

Pamela and Tom’s father, Richard Sr. — who died in 2000 — was about 13 in 1937 when Brother André died. Their aunt and uncle, Robert and Virginia — Richard’s siblings — live out of state and have some recollections of Brother André and shared them with Pamela before the interview for this article.

 

One story, that seemed to emerge from the mists of time and memory during the interview, involves Leda Vachon, one of the two unmarried sisters who lived at the Vachon homestead.

 

Tom said his grandfather told him of the time when Leda had fallen into a coma and was in a hospital bed in the dining room. Brother André made a special trip to Bennington to see her. When he arrived he told everyone to stay in the kitchen. “He walked into the room and he said a prayer. And after he said the prayer he looked at her and said, ‘Leda, get up.’”

 

“She got up, got right out of the bed, put her clothes on and went to the kitchen and had a meal,” Tom said. “When Brother André left, she went back into the bed. I think she was awake for maybe a week, then she went back into the coma and passed away.”

 

Pamela said she recollected part of the story, but this was a family story handed on and there is no solid proof of a miracle. Said Tom, “There’s no proof. All it is is just hearsay. But when everybody talks about the same thing the exact same way it happened, there’s got to be a little bit of belief in it.”

 

Miracle or no, Pamela and Tom clearly are enthusiastic about having a family connection with a man then about to be declared a saint by the church. “We had heard the stories that Brother André did miracles. Certainly never witnessed one,” Pamela said. “But it’s just a fact that he was connected to the family through friendship, and just to have this happen, it’s just utterly amazing.”

 

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Mark Rondeau - Writer, Editor, Photographer

Religion


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Pamela Vachon-Duprea and Tom Vachon. (Mark E. Rondeau)

 

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A statue of Brother André at the Oratory in Montreal. (public domain)