By Mike Thompson

Special to The Catholic Commentator  

Baton Rouge native and first-year medical student Sarah Bertrand believes in miracles, especially those attributed to the saint who founded Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans where Bertrand graduated magna cum laud in the spring of 2019. 

 

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Sarah Bertrand

 

Bertrand said she believes two hearing-related miracles attributed to St. Mother Katharine Drexel emphasize God’s call to listen to the poor and vulnerable. She recalled a time when she volunteered in a New Orleans hospital emergency room and comforted a woman who experienced suicidal thoughts during drug withdrawals. The episode taught Bertrand that listening is essential to compassionate patient care.  

“It really allows you to connect with their hearts, to just be there for that other person and offer some healing,” she said. 

Bertrand also heard the voices of the poor and vulnerable during Xavier-sponsored mission trips to Honduras. She described the loud and energetic voices of children who sang during a Mass that students helped to organize.  

“Some of these kids come from villages in the mountains where they don’t have Mass every Sunday,” she said. “We could feel God’s presence in that room.” 

Bertrand, who graduated from Sacred Heart of Jesus School and St. Joseph’s Academy, both in Baton Rouge, also listened as she prayed for guidance on a decision to attend Xavier or to leave Louisiana for an undergraduate scholarship at St. Louis University. Xavier leads the nation in the number of African-American graduates who later complete medical school, and Bertrand credits the university with preparing her to earn a full scholarship from Ochsner Health System for tuition and fees at LSU Health Shreveport School of Medicine. Before earning this scholarship, Bertrand expected to face more than $200,000 in medical school debt. 

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First-year medical student Sarah Bertrand is a graduate of St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge and was magna cum laud at Xavier University of Louisiana last spring. 

 

“My life would not be the same without St. Katharine Drexel’s legacy,” she said, describing the saint’s generosity and courage.  

As the heiress to a banking fortune, St. Katharine gave away an estimated $15 million during her lifetime. To help people know God’s promise of salvation and become community leaders, she established 51 convents, 49 elementary schools, 12 high schools, Xavier University and 37 missions in 20 states.  

The saint also deprived herself of basic comforts and devoted much of her schedule to cross-country visits to each of her missions. 

According to biographer Cheryl Hughes, St. Katharine persevered after an arsonist attacked Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament property in Virginia and the Ku Klux Klan threatened the order with “flogging and tar and feathers” and “dynamite” in Beaumont, Texas. Drexel sometimes needed to outmaneuver those who opposed her efforts.  

After the Louisiana Legislature required Southern University to move out of New Orleans, Drexel recruited a third party, named “Mr. McInerney,” to buy the vacant New Orleans property at public auction for $18,000 in 1915 for the eventual creation of Xavier. 

Bertrand said she found comfort in Drexel’s courageous example when her own critics tried to discourage her from becoming a physician.  

“People close to you will say that’s too hard. You can’t handle it,” she said. “I think St. Katharine Drexel would have said ‘well, make sure you get the good grades, and put in the work and, of course, you’ll go to medical school.’ ” 

“Sarah’s brilliant mind and kind heart will make her one of the best doctors anywhere,” said Cecilia Methvin, Bertrand’s middle school science teacher who now serves as principal at Sacred Heart. 

“She will be a wonderful healer,” added Bertrand’s former St. Joseph’s Academy theology teacher, Sister Christine Pologa CSJ, calling her a “natural leader and team builder with a heart attentive to the least among us.” 

As Bertrand begins the next phase of her spiritual and professional journey, she shared parting advice for university freshmen as they adjust to the freedoms of undergraduate life. 

“You’re not around your parents to tell you to go to Mass on Sunday,” she said. “You have to be engaged in your own faith. Take it into your own hands.”