Saint Laura Montoya, foundress of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine of Siena, traveled to the farthest places to catechize the indigenous people of Colombia.
Newsroom (22/10/2023 08:28, Gaudium Press) Laura Montoya was born in the city of Jericho on May 26, 1874, in an environment that was both fervent and warlike. Her mother, Dolores Upegui, didn’t give her first kiss until she had been baptized, which happened just four hours after her birth. As for her father, Joao de la Cruz Montoya, a doctor, and merchant, Laurita hardly got to know him, as he died when she was just two years old in one of the civil wars.
Every day the Montoya family gathered to pray the Rosary, always including, among other intentions, for a certain Clímaco Uribe, who the girl thought was a family member.
– Mom, where does Mr. Clímaco Uribe live? – she asked one day.
– This is your father’s murderer. You must love him because we must love our enemies. After all, they bring us closer to God by making us suffer.
“With such lessons,” the saint wrote decades later, “it was impossible for me, over time, not to love those who had done me wrong.” It should be noted that the death of Juan de la Cruz Montoya, followed by the confiscation of all his possessions, had left the widow with three young children in almost extreme poverty. The poor lady was forced to live in the homes of relatives, and subjected to the vexations and humiliations she suffered as a result.
As if struck by lightning
The pain of seeing her mother treated with contempt was compounded by an incomparably greater ordeal for the innocent child. For various reasons, she only received expressions of antipathy and brutal rejection from people from whom she expected to receive affection. “It was God who needed to find my heart empty of any earthly affection so that he could, in time, take absolute possession of it,” she wrote.
Finding herself so rejected by her family, Laurita got used to observing nature, her “only friend”. This was where the hand of Jesus came in, preparing the field to grant her a grace that would shape her life.
At the age of eight, one morning, as usual, she was admiring the order and industriousness of a row of ants carrying their supply of leaves, when she suddenly felt something indescribable in her soul: “I was struck by a lightning bolt, which was a knowledge of God and his greatness, so deep, so magnificent, so loving that today, after so much study and learning, I don’t know any more about God than I did then”.
It’s beautiful to see how eloquently God speaks to us through irrational creatures. But it’s much more beautiful to see how he attracts us through the example of virtuous people, as happened with little Laura. When she was ten years old, she met two young women in the town of Donmatías, where her family had moved after the death of her father.
In these two model young women, Laura saw a reflection of her vocation: “Ursula, the contemplative virgin, and Dolores, the apostle virgin, were, without knowing it, my teachers, my mirrors, the pedagogues of my vocation”.
Spiritual communion rewarded with a burst of love
In 1887, six years after her First Communion, Jesus gave her a remarkable grace to strengthen her faith in the Eucharist. She had gotten into the habit of offering the day’s work to God every morning, and of often renewing this offering. She never missed an opportunity to receive Communion and liked to remain in front of the tabernacle, even without any sensible grace.
One day, when she began a household chore, she offered it, as usual, to the Lord. At that moment, “no doubt in response to my offering, God infused me with a strong desire to receive Communion”. She made a spiritual communion and felt an extraordinary surge of love as if the Eucharist had pierced her soul. “I seemed to understand how Jesus is in the Host and how the Divine Word is in Jesus.”
A teacher with a thirst for souls
She began this mission when she was nineteen. Overcoming enormous difficulties, in 1893 she received her diploma as a primary and secondary school teacher. In January of the following year, she made her teaching debut at the municipal school in Amalfi, where she was able to give vent to her thirst for souls.
In no time at all, the fruits of her conversion and growth began to bear fruit. Numerous girls from the best society in the area began to take communion frequently and to defend their faith vigorously in the face of attacks from ungodly relatives. She obtained similar results in two other state schools where she taught.
It wasn’t long before the devil took his revenge. In Medellín, a prominent couple was preparing for the wedding party of their daughter, Eva Castro. The bride was a disciple of Laura’s and invited her to be her godmother.
With just two days to go until the nuptials, the bride told her parents of her decision to break her engagement, claiming to have a religious vocation. Through mysterious tricks, the evil spirit managed to inculcate in the minds of the parents and relatives the idea not only that the young teacher was to blame for this sudden change, but even worse, that she had acted out of unconfessed intentions.
As a result of this double lie, a gigantic wave of slander and defamation arose, initially transmitted by word of mouth, but soon afterward by the press, including those in the capital of the republic.
The first consequence was the closure of the school. In a short time, the saint found herself the target of all kinds of insults, even in the streets where kids threw stones at her. Worse still, she was so abandoned by those who had a duty to defend her that even her confessor, after subjecting her to a brutal interrogation, told her he could no longer take care of her. All this was aggravated by the material poverty to which she and her mother were reduced.
Providence finally intervened, almost miraculously solving the financial problem. A timely and well-written “open letter” to Eva Castro’s father, published with the help of a family friend, put the record straight and emptied the smear campaign of content.
When, a few years later, Laura opened a new school with the same initial success, it too was closed in its second year of operation. This time, not because of the opposition of declared enemies of the Holy Church, but because of an ill-informed bishop.
These and numerous other catastrophes in St. Laura’s life did nothing to shake her serenity of soul or her confidence: she knew very well that the cross was the best sign of predestination. And that by this means God was preparing her soul for a great vocation: that of being a missionary among the Indians, and the mother of numerous missionaries.
One of the first sisters, with an indigenous family
Three or four hundred thousand lost children
For some time, she had felt immense pain in her soul when she realized that thousands of indigenous Colombians had no contact with the Church. “I felt like a mother who had three or four hundred thousand lost children”. The more her desire to catechize these unfortunates grew in her heart, the more God allowed the obstacles to multiply, which she describes in great detail in her Autobiography.
In it, she gives a graceful account of how she finally got the go-ahead to embark on her adventure. Having managed to make an appointment with Bishop Maximiliano Crespo of Antioquia, she presented herself “with British punctuality” at the bishop’s palace on February 11, 1912.
– So you are the one who has taken to heart the holy enterprise of saving the poor Indians? – asked the Prelate kindly.
– Yes, Excellency, at least to work a little for them.
– For I welcome this work with heart, soul, and life. […] I will always support it. And if the resources of the diocese are scarce, I will draw on those of my pocket, which are not scarce. In the beginning, I will not take more than four companions who are capable of taking on the role of superior in the future. All I need is a priest, but God will provide that.
A procession of women preceded by ten-pack mules
On the “beautiful morning of May 5, 1914”, as she wrote in her Autobiography, the five missionaries set off, including Laura’s mother, Dolores Upegui, already 72 years old, but no less enthusiastic or decisive than the young women.
A spectacle never before seen by the inhabitants of Medellín, this procession of women, preceded by ten-pack mules led by two pedestrians, was going with a clear objective: to save souls. The windows were filled with sympathy and admiration, and some with sarcastic laughter.
After a tiring and dangerous journey, they arrived at the place chosen to establish the mission’s base: Dabeiba. Despite the presence of two priests who accompanied them at the end of the journey to facilitate the first contact, they were received with contempt and hostility by the population.
Conquered by kindness and prayer
After setting up the community in a cramped and precarious accommodation, “Mother” Laura soon set about planning a regime of life in search of perfection. The harder the sufferings and difficulties, the greater the joy God gave them in facing them. And when, after more than a month, the indigenous people began to appear, suspicious and aloof, it wasn’t difficult for them to gradually gain confidence in the nuns.
How were they won over? By the heroism of the daily life they led, by the kindness and tenderness with which they welcomed the poor savages, and, above all, with many prayers and sacrifices, the price of the graces that Divine Providence dispensed for the salvation of those souls.
A new religious institution had just been born, which three years later would receive diocesan approval under the name of Congregation of Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena. Pontifical approval came in 1953 when the holy founder was already in heavenly glory.
The “unveiled” Indian
In the most difficult moments, God came to the aid of the heroic missionaries prodigiously. Thus, to overcome the hostility of the people of Dabeiba, she worked numerous miraculous cures, disguised as “medicines” prescribed by Mother Laura. For example, an old man on the verge of death was prescribed water from the stream near his house, boiled, and placed for a few hours in the shade of a plane tree. The old man took the “medicine” and was cured the same day.
Much more impressive is the case of Próspero Jumí, an Indian who was dedicated to the missionaries from the start. Both his mother and some old Indians claimed that he had already been baptized. Stricken with a serious illness, he died in the late afternoon after receiving the Anointing of the Sick.
A few hours later, Mother Laura felt sure that the good Indian had died without baptism, and she proposed that her sisters get up at midnight and pray the entire Rosary, asking the Virgin Mary to restore him to life. They did so and went back to sleep peacefully, certain that their prayers would be answered. And they were!
First thing in the morning, groups of excited Indians began to pass by, telling them that Prospero had “de-veiled” and had gotten up in full health! The Indians present at the wake claimed to have seen Mother “unveil” the dead man. Prospero was finally baptized and lived for several years as a good Christian.
“Mary, my Mother, save me”
Facing countless adventures, “la madrecita y sus hermanitas” entered and established themselves in places where valiant missionaries had not been able to penetrate.
“My devotion to the Blessed Virgin was like the oar that moved my little boat,” wrote Mother Laura, adding that the Mother of God was “the first knowledge and pure love of the indigenous people”.
They liked to repeat this sweet jaculatory taught to them by the Madrecita: “Mary, my Mother, save me”. The missionaries were delighted to see how even the most hardened among them disarmed when they heard about Mary.
– I don’t need God! I don’t want Baptism! I don’t like your law! – cried one.
– Don’t you like Mary either, my Mother? – said the missionary.
– Yes, I like her! This one is very dear to me!
The last nine years of her life were spent in a wheelchair, amid harsh trials. Meanwhile, Providence blessed the expansion of her work. At the time of her death on October 21, 1949, she had 90 houses in three countries and 467 religious sisters. Today, the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena are present in 19 countries.
Text extracted, with adaptations, from Heralds of the Gospel Magazine no. 142, October 2013.
Compiled by Dominic Joseph