JERICÓ, Colombia -- In her lifetime, Laura Montoyas stubborn determination to help Colombias indigenous people brought the reproach of society, the political elite and the church, which viewed her work with suspicion and accused her of being unstable.
But on Sunday, an adoring nation celebrated the woman, better known as Madre Laura, as this Catholic countrys first saint.
In this hilltop town where she was born, surrounded by coffee farms, revelers crammed the central plaza to watch the Vatican canonization ceremony that began at 2:30 a.m. local time. As Pope Francis announced her name, bells rang, fireworks frightened pigeons out of the trees and a giant portrait of Montoya her young face framed by a nuns habit was unveiled on the citys cathedral.
This town was always bittersweet for Montoya, who died in 1949 at age 75. Her father was killed here when she was two and, in her autobiography, she recalls being shuttled from town-to-town impoverished, lonely and insecure.
She thought of herself as defective and incapable, said Estefanía Martínez, 90, a nun who took care of Montoya during her final years. But she was so brave and so sure of the job that God had given her.
Montoya said her relationship with God began when she was six or seven. She was helping the ants in her neighborhood move their cargo of leaves, when she said she felt like she was injured by lightning and so overwhelmed by the presence of God that she screamed and sobbed in joy.
Today, after all my studies and learning, she wrote years later, I dont know more about God than I knew that day.
Montoya eked out a living as a teacher to support her family, but her passion was missionary work.
In 1914, even before she took her vows, Montoya organized an expedition of six women, including her aging mother, and took a 10-day trip into the wilderness to live with and minister to an indigenous Emberá Katío clan near the town of Dabeiba. Initially, the mission didnt have the churchs backing, as officials thought that such risky ventures were best undertaken by men. Church leaders called her crazy and visionary, and suggested that she might be looking for a husband in the wilderness, according to her biographer Manuel Díaz Álvarez.
But as the mission thrived, envious priests accused her of stealing church funds and blasted the women for being so isolated that they could not attend mass. Some of Montoyas missions, including her flagship mission in Dabeiba, were shut down, albeit temporarily.
Even so, followers continued to flock to the portly woman who believed that she was most needed in places the church neglected.
Sister Edda Parra, 78, says she was a child when she saw a picture of the nuns deep in a jungle. When she announced her intention to join them, her priest told her she wasnt capable of living with savages and her parents begged her to consider a less adventurous congregation.
I said I was either going to be a missionary with Madre Laura or wasnt going to be anything, she said.
When Parra began her missionary work in the 1960s in Colombias Amazon, indigenous people were still being treated as virtual slaves and were murdered by landowners with impunity, she said. The Lauritas spent as much time teaching groups how to read and write and defend their rights and culture as ministering to them, she said.