In her lifetime, Laura Montoya’s stubborn determination to help Colombia’s 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 country’s 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 nun’s habit – was unveiled on the city’s 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.
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“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 don’t 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 didn’t have the church’s 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 Montoya’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t going to be anything,” she said.
When Parra began her missionary work in the 1960s in Colombia’s 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.
“Laura taught us that our teaching had to come from a place of love and respect for their customs and their beliefs,” Parra said.
Montoya required her nuns to learn the local languages and live, sleep and eat in the same conditions as their congregation. That sometimes meant living in abject poverty.
Montoya’s work was eventually embraced by the church and she is officially recognized as the founder of the Congregation of Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Sienna, but the group is more commonly known as Las Lauritas in honor of their founder. Pope John Paul II called Laura “the mother of the Indigenous peoples.”
Today, the group has almost 1,000 nuns working in 21 nations. Outposts can be found deep in the Amazon, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and on the streets of Haiti.
Montoya herself was so ascetic that when a wealthy patron put Montoya up at her plush mansion, she slept on the floor. But she also had a sense of humor. Montoya was a heavy woman, recalled Marítnez, and the congregation struggled to find an animal that could bear her weight. They eventually settled on a sturdy mule named Flores.
In 1939, when Montoya was given the nation’s highest honor, “La Cruz de Boyaca,” she insisted it was Flores that deserved the award. Montoya was also “knighted” during the ceremony, leading her to joke that the country had changed her sex.
Even on her deathbed, when an infection of her lymphatic system had created painful, running boils on her legs, she kept her good humor, said Martínez.
“When we put gauze on her, she said it felt like a burlap sack,” Martinez said. “But she never complained.”
The church requires two miracles before someone can be declared a saint, and the first came in 1994 when a woman suffering what the doctors believed was terminal cervical and pelvic cancer was inexplicably cured after invoking Montoya’s name. She lived another nine years and died of other causes. The second miracle came in 2006, when a young doctor, Carlos Eduardo Restrepo, was given last rites after battling what has been described as lupus and renal damage. After praying to Montoya, he made a full recovery. On Sunday, it was Restrepo who presented Pope Francis with Montoya’s relics.
Last December, then Pope Benedict announced Montoya’s canonization along with that of two others: Antonio Primaldo, an Italian who was martyred along with 800 in 1480 by Ottoman invaders, and María Guadalupe García Zavala, a Mexican nun who founded the Congregation of the Handmaids of St. Margaret Mary of the Poor, and who died in 1963.
But those announcements went almost unnoticed. That same day, Benedict shocked the Catholic world when he announced his retirement and became the first pope to step down in more than 600 years.
There’s no way to overlook Montoya now in Colombia. Television is flooded with documentaries about her and street vendors are selling everything from mugs and t-shirts to handbags with her image.
Parra never met Madre Laura, but she said her hero’s sanctification would force the organization to redouble its efforts to keep working with the indigenous, the marginalized and the poor.
“We have such a huge responsibility now,” she said, “with this incredible woman looking over us.”