Laura Montoya (1874-1949)
Virgin and Foundress of The Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena
Laura Montoya Upegui was born on 26 May 1874 in Jericó, Antioquia, Colombia, the second of three children to Juan de la Crux Montoya and Dolores Upegui.
When Laura was only 2 years old, her father was killed defending his Country, and the family was left in extreme poverty after all their goods were confiscated. At such a time of deep misery and loss, Laura's mother gave an example of Christian forgiveness and fortitude that would remain impressed in her young daughter's mind and heart forever.
Childhood suffering, divine help
Following her father's death, Laura was sent to live with her grandmother. She suffered greatly from misunderstandings and the lack of affection, feeling she had been left "orphaned".
However, she accepted with love the sacrifices and loneliness she experienced and sought refuge in God.
As she grew older, she was especially sustained by meditation on Sacred Scripture and the strength she received from the Eucharist.
When Laura was 16, her mother decided that her daughter needed to help the family in its financial difficulties and told her to apply to become a teacher. Although Laura was culturally and academically "ignorant", having grown up without a formal education, she asked to enter the "Normale de Institutoras" of Medellín to receive training to become an elementary school teacher. She was accepted and stood out for her high marks among the students.
Called to "teach Christ'
Laura began teaching in different parts of Antioquia. She did not limit herself to educating the students simply in academic knowledge, but sought to diffuse Gospel teaching and values.
She also felt called to the religious life, her heart set on God alone, and dreamed of one day becoming a cloistered Carmelite nun; at the same time, though, she felt growing within her the desire to spread the Gospel to the farthest corners of the earth, to those who had never met Jesus Christ.
She was ready to renounce her own "dream" of Carmel to be open to God's project, if his will was otherwise.
"An Indian with the Indians'
At one time during her teaching career, Laura felt decidedly drawn to helping the Indian population in South America and wished to insert herself into their culture, to "become an Indian with the Indians to win them all for Christ". Recognizing their dignity as human beings in an epoch when they were considered by many as "wild beasts", Laura wanted to destroy this racial discrimination and to personally sacrifice herself in order to bring them Christ's love and teaching.
On 14 May 1914, she left Medellín together with four other young women and headed to Dabeiba to live among the native Indians. This new religious family, assisted by the Bishop of Santa Fe de Antioquia and known as the "Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St Catherine of Siena", was thought by some to be nothing more than a family of "religious goats", who were heading off into the wilderness to give the "beasts" a living Gospel catechism.
Laura, however, cared little for public opinion, even if some of the comments made came right from within the Christian community itself.
Pedagogy of love
Mother Laura composed for her "daughters" a directory and other writings (her Autobiography among them) to help them understand better their call to serve God among the Indians, and to live a balance between apostolic and contemplative life. She taught by example the "pedagogy of love" as the only way to teach the Indians, the way which allowed access into their heart and culture to bring them Jesus Christ.
Mother Laura died on 21 October 1949 in Medellín, after a long and painful illness. The last nine years of her life were lived in a wheelchair, where she continued to teach by example, word and writing.
Today her Missionary Sisters work in 19 countries throughout America, Africa and Europe.
Pope John Paul II through a decree of heroic virtues declared her as venerable on 22 January 1991 and beatified her on 25 April 2004. The beatification miracle involved the 1994 cure of an 86 year old woman with uterine cancer. Laura was canonized by Pope Francis on May 12, 2013. The canonization miracle involves the healing of Dr. Carlos Eduardo Restrepo, who was suffering from lupus, kidney damage and muscular degeneration. After praying to Blessed Laura, the doctor was said to be completely cured.
Homily of John Paul II
"Just after daybreak Jesus was standing on the shore, though none of the disciples knew it was Jesus" (Jn 21: 4).
It is possible for a person not to know the Lord, notwithstanding his numerous manifestations in the course of history. Mother Laura Montoya, seeing how many indigenous persons far away from urban centres lived without knowing God, decided to found the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St Catherine of Siena, with the aim of bringing the light of the Gospel to the inhabitants of the forests.
This Blessed Colombian considered herself as mother to the Indians, to whom she wanted to show God's love. Her times were not easy ones, since the social tensions bloodied even then her noble Country. Taking inspiration from her message of peace, let us ask today that the beloved Nation of Colombia may soon enjoy peace, justice and holistic progress.