-Saint Louis Bertrand, OP, 1636-1638, by Francisco de Zurbaran, 209 x 154 cm, oil on canvas, Spanish baroque style, Museum of Fine Art Seville, Spain.
Louis Bertrand was born in Valencia to Juan Bertrand and Juana Angela Exarch. Through his father he was related to St. Vincent Ferrer, a thaumaturgus of the Dominican Order. At an early age he conceived the idea of becoming a Dominican Friar, and despite the efforts of his father to dissuade him, was clothed with the Dominican habit in the Convent of St. Dominic, Valencia on 26 August 1539. After the usual period of probation, he pronounced the evangelical vows.
In demeanour he was grave and apparently without any sense of humour, yet withal possessed of a gentle and sweet disposition that greatly endeared him to those with whom he came in contact. While he could lay no claim to the great intellectual gifts and ripe scholarship that have distinguished so many of the saints of the Dominican order, he applied himself assiduously to study, and stored his mind with the sacred truths expounded in the pages of the Summa. In 1547 he was ordained to the priesthood by the Archbishop of Valencia, Saint Thomas of Villanova.
He was appointed to the office of master of novices, in the convent at Valencia, the duties of which he discharged at different intervals for an aggregate of thirty years. When the plague broke out in Valencia in 1557 he devoted himself to the sick and dying; the dead he prepared for burial and interred with his own hands.
When the plague had subsided, the zeal of the holy novice-master sought to extend the scope of his already large ministry into the apostolate of preaching. Although it is said that “his voice was raucous, his memory treacherous, his carriage without grace”, he became a fervent preacher.
The cathedral and most capacious churches were placed at his disposal, but proved wholly inadequate to accommodate the multitude that desired to hear him. Eventually it became necessary for him to resort to the public squares of the city. It was probably the fame of his preaching that brought him to the attention of St. Teresa, who at this time sought his counsel in the matter of reforming her order.
Louis had long cherished the desire to enter the mission fields of the New World. Receiving permission he sailed for America in 1562, and landed at Cartagena, where he immediately entered upon the career of a missionary.
Missionary work in South America
The Bull of canonization asserts that he was favored with the gift of miracles, and while preaching in his native Spanish was understood in various languages. With the encouragement of Bartolomé de las Casas defended the natives rights against the Spanish conquerors.
From Cartagena, the scene of his first labors, St. Louis was sent to Panama, where in a comparatively short time he converted some 6,000 people. His next mission was at Tubará, situated near the sea-coast and midway between the city of Cartagena and the Magdalena River.
The success of his efforts at this place is witnessed by the entries of the baptismal registers, in the saint’s own handwriting, which show that all the inhabitants of the place were received into the Church by St. Louis; Turon places the number of converts in Tubará at 10,000. Remarkably all had been adequately instructed in the teachings of the Church before receiving baptism, and continued steadfast in their faith.
From Tubará, Louis went to Cipacoa and Paluato. His success at the former place, the exact location of which it is impossible to determine, was little inferior to that of Tubará. At Paluato the results of his zealous efforts were somewhat disheartening. From this unfruitful soil the saint withdrew to the province of Santa Marta, where his former successes were repeated, yielding 15,000 souls. While labouring at Santa Marta, a tribe of 1500 natives came to him from Paluato to receive baptism, which before they had rejected.
The work at Santa Marta finished, the tireless missionary undertook the work of converting the warlike Caribs, probably inhabitants of the Leeward Islands. His efforts among the tribesmen seem not to have been attended with any great success.
Nevertheless, Louis used the occasion again to make manifest the protection which overshadowed his ministry. According to legend, a deadly poison was given to him by one of the native priests. Through Divine interposition, the poison failed to accomplish its purpose.
Tenerife in the Canary Islands became the next field of the saint’s apostolic labours. Unfortunately, there are no records extant to indicate what was the result of his preaching.
At Mompax, thirty-seven leagues south-east of Cartagena, we are told, rather indefinitely, that many thousands were converted to the faith.
Several of the West Indies islands, notably those of St. Vincent and St. Thomas, were visited by St. Louis in his indefatigable quest for souls.
Return to Spain
After seven years as a missionary in South America, Bertrand returned to Spain in 1569, to plead the cause of the oppressed Indians, but he was not permitted to return and labor among them.
He used his own growing reputation for sanctity, as well as family and other contacts to lobby on behalf of the native peoples he had encountered, as well as serving in his native diocese of Valencia. There he also became a spiritual counselor to many, including St. Teresa of Ávila.
In 1580, the Bertrand fell ill and was carried down from the pulpit of the Valencia cathedral. He died on October 9, 1582, as he supposedly foretold.
Bertrand is sometimes called the “Apostle of South America”.
-statue of St Louis Bertrand, OP, St Louis Bertrand Parish, Louisville, KY
In Catholic iconography, St. Louis Bertrand is often portrayed holding a chalice from which serpents are emerging. In the other hand, he displays a crucifix with a pistol at its base. These articles call to mind two stories from the great saint’s life when God miraculously saved him from attempts on his life by vile would-be assassins. The first recalls the story of Brother Louis’ the above story where a native priest gave him a chalice of poison for Mass. Louis made the sign of the Cross over the toxic potation, and serpents sprang from the chalice, thus revealing its true contents and saving his life.
The second object – the crucifix/pistol – recalls another account of near-martyrdom in the life of St. Louis Bertrand. Set upon by a crazed gunman, St. Louis calmly made the conquering sign of the Cross. With this most basic gesture of our faith, the barrel of the gun miraculously turned into a crucifix.
“If because of your preaching men lay aside enmities, forgive injuries, avoid occasions of sin and scandals, and reform their conduct, you may say that the seed has fallen on good ground. But to God alone give all the glory and acknowledge yourselves ever unprofitable servants.” -St Louis Bertrand, OP
O God, through mortification of the body and preaching of the faith, You raised the blessed Louis, your confessor, to the glory of the saints; grant that what we profess by faith we may ever fulfill by works of piety. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.