St. Louis Bertrand, Missionary to the Americas, Pray For Us!
St. Louis Bertrand was related to St. Vincent Ferrer, ordained by St. Thomas of Villanova and a friend of St. Teresa of Ávila.
St. Louis Bertrand (Luis Beltrán in Spanish or Lluís Bertran in Catalan) is a relatively unknown saint, except perhaps in Colombia, where he is revered as the patron saint of that South American country.
But St. Louis deserves mentions for a host of reasons. First, his pedigree. He was related, through his father, to the great Dominican St. Vincent Ferrer, who died 150 years prior. One of the glories of the Order of Preachers, especially in its homeland of Spain, St. Vincent set the bar very high for all Dominicans who followed by his exceptional preaching which extended from the British Isles to France, Italy and Switzerland.
Not that St. Louis saw himself as a missionary — at least not right away. We know from his vita that he made a pilgrimage to the celebrated shrine of Santiago de Compostela for guidance on which religious order or congregation to join, but no answer came. Undeterred, St. Louis returned to his native Valencia and came under the guidance of the renowned Dominican Father John Mico, who persuaded the 18-year-old Louis to take the black-and-white habit of his beloved forebear, St. Vincent Ferrer.
Despite joining the somewhat-still-new Dominicans, St. Louis received priestly ordination in 1547 from the Augustinian friar, St. Thomas of Villanova, who was bishop of that see — and saw in St. Louis great promise. Louis was soon (perhaps too soon) made master of novices and seems to have been severe, if not merciless, not only in his personal asceticism but in those under his charge. However, a greater challenge awaited him.
Since we ourselves have been living “in time of plague,” as the poet Thom Gunn might call it, we should be able to identify a bit with a pestilence that smote Valencia. St. Louis was one of those saints who, like St. Francis of Assisi, showed no fear of leprosy (or any disease) and simply threw himself into the work of assisting the sick and dying with medical care and the sacraments.
Given his pedigree — not too many people can claim a saint in their family tree — and the fact that he was ordained by another living saint, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that soon after the plague subsided, St. Louis began a correspondence with the great glory of the Spanish Church, St. Teresa of Ávila. St. Louis predicted, correctly, that St. Teresa would do great work for the Carmelites with her singular blend of mysticism and austere administration.
What his great-great-great uncle St. Vincent Ferrer had been to Europe, from Ireland to Italy, St. Louis became to the New World in general and Colombia in particular. And like St. Vincent he spoke only Spanish (or, since the Spanish are particular about this, Catalan). One would think this might make the already arduous work of evangelization all but impossible, but St. Louis availed himself of an able interpreter and was blessed with the gift of tongues, as was St. Vincent Ferrer — which is certainly a good help when one is a member of an order given exclusively to preaching.
What might be more remarkable still about St. Louis’s apostolate to central and South America is what he accomplished in only six years: Starting from Cartagena, Colombia, he ministered and missioned to Panama, then St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and St. Vincent in the Leeward Isles, before returning back to Colombia.
It’s worth mentioning that these travels of hundreds of miles among foreign peoples were done long before anything but a wind-powered sea vessel could carry a missionary from Spain to Colombia to Panama to the Caribbean and back again to Colombia.
Ironically, perhaps the hardest people for St. Louis to convert in the New World were not the heathen natives, but the rapacious Spaniards whose often violent un-Christlike treatment of the indigenous peoples was a scandal not merely to St. Louis but to the whole Church. But the conquistadors were for the most part intransigent and refused to change, so St. Louis decided to seek help back in Spain.
Coincidentally, he was recalled to his home country at this very time so, for the second time, St. Louis crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Seville in 1569, and made his way back to his native Valencia. Though he was still relatively young (he was not yet 50), he seemed to sense that his new “mission” was not to go back to South America, but to train other preachers for that perilous task. And where he had once been a stern and almost unforgiving taskmaster as a young novice director, St. Louis now came to the conclusion that, for the preacher, “Words without works never have the power to touch or change hearts.”
St. Louis died in 1581, when he was only 55, after a brutal illness that stretched out for more than a year and a half and left him bedridden — certainly a burden for anyone, but especially for a peripatetic preacher.
His sanctity was as obvious as any of the other saints mentioned above — St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Teresa of Ávila. In fact, he was canonized fewer than a century after his death.