The Bennington Banner, Oct. 18, 2010
MARK E. RONDEAU
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.’”
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