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May 13, 2013

Once shunned by the church, Madre Laura becomes Colombia's first saint

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JERICÓ, Colombia -- 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 IMG_5517town-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 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 was ordained, 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.



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