Saints for Our Times: St. Louis Bertrand brought faith to the New World
By Mary Lou Gibson
The voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World that began in 1492 heralded the beginning of the expansion of the Spanish empire. The excitement of the discovery of a “New World” was at a fevered pitch in 1526 when a boy, Louis Bertrand (Luis Bertrán) was born in Valencia. Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes in “365 Saints” that Louis was related to St. Vincent Ferrer through his father and was baptized in the same baptismal font as the saint.
Louis exhibited an exceptional sanctity in his young life and it came as no surprise to his family when he joined the Dominicans at age 18. He was ordained a priest three years later and was appointed master of novices a few years later. He held this office off and on for about 30 years. He became a famous preacher and counselor, teaching that prayer must always precede all other actions, including preaching and teaching.
Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that in 1557 Louis worked tirelessly to help the sick during the pestilence that raged in Valencia. It was about this time that he met St. Teresa of Avila who wrote to him about her plan to reform Carmel and he advised her on this project.
During these years in Valencia, Louis heard many stories of Spanish conquistadors traveling to the “New World” and reporting on the “savages” that lived there. Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Louis grew more and more concerned about these people and yearned to preach the Gospel to them.
Finally in 1562 when he was 36, Louis left Spain and landed at Cartagena in New Granada (Colombia). He spoke only Spanish and preached to the Native Americans through an interpreter. There were reports that God granted him a gift of tongues so that the Indians could understand him. Another story told about him is that while preaching in Colombia, he was attacked by an armed man. When Louis made the Sign of the Cross over the weapon, it was transformed into a crucifix.
According to Walsh, Louis converted thousands of souls in the next three years in the Isthmus of Panama and the province of Cartegena. He visited the Caribs of the Leeward Islands, San Tomé in the Virgin Islands, and San Vincente in the Windwards, before returning to Colombia.
Louis was shocked and deeply upset by the avarice and cruelty of the Spanish adventurers to the natives and was one of the first to criticize their practices. After seven years of missionary work, Louis returned to Spain to plead the cause of the oppressed Indians, but he was not successful and was not permitted to return and labor among them.
He spent the rest of his life in Valencia training many excellent preachers who succeeded him in the mission work in the new world. The first lesson he gave his priests was that humble and fervent prayer must always be the principal preparation for the preaching: “for words without works never have power to touch or change hearts.”
He preached his last sermon in the Valencia cathedral in 1580. He was carried from the pulpit to his bed where he spent the next several months with a painful illness. Louis died on Oct. 9, 1581.
He was canonized in 1671 by Pope Clement X. A statue of St. Louis is on the north Colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He is the patron of Colombia.