(CNS) — In early January 2005, Carlos Eduardo Restrepo, a Colombian anesthesiologist suffering from lupus and a severe infection in his thorax, faced death.
His family and friends were preparing for the worst. He was given last rites. But then an image of Blessed Mother Laura Montoya appeared to him, he said.
“I remember it very well. In the moment, I was calm. I prayed to her: Help me get through this and it will allow you to get to the altars,” he told the newspaper El Colombiano.
Restrepo survived and was cured of his disease.
“If this wasn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI recognized it as a miracle last year, making it the second miracle attributed to Mother Montoya. In 1994, a Colombian woman, Herminia Gonzalez Trujillo, who had been hemorrhaging due to uterine cancer, was cured after praying to Mother Montoya.
Mother Montoya, who died in 1949 after a career spent working with poor indigenous Colombians in difficult circumstances, will be canonized May 12 and will become the first Colombian saint.
“It’s an incredibly important and happy moment for us,” said Sister Cristina Santillan of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena, which Mother Montoya founded.
That Mother Montoya will be the first saint born in the country is historic, considering Colombia is the sixth-largest Catholic country by population and that more than 82 percent of its population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“For Colombians and for the congregation, this is a historic moment that we will cherish,” Sister Santillan told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Medellin, Colombia, where Mother Montoya died.
Mother Montoya was born in a small town in mountainous north-central Colombia in 1874. When she was just 2 years old, her father was killed during a civil war, leaving the family in extreme poverty, according to the Vatican’s biography.
Raised by her grandmother, Mother Montoya trained to become a teacher as a teenager. It was while teaching at schools in Colombia that she chose the religious life.
After an encounter with a group of indigenous Colombians who had been mistreated, Mother Montoya dedicated most of her adult life to working directly with the country’s poor indigenous population.
At the age of 35, she worked as a missionary in remote indigenous communities in Colombia. Sister Santillan said Mother Montoya displayed exceptional bravery in a time when women rarely took such a visible role. At the time, indigenous communities were widely discriminated against.
“This was a young woman who … at 35 years old decided to go into the jungle to search for indigenous (Colombians), on a mule along with other young women,” Sister Carmen Uribe wrote in a blog dedicated to Mother Montoya. “It was a 10-day journey to the reach indigenous peoples that (at the time) were considered savage, soulless and irrational.”
This work led her to start her religious order in 1914. She dedicated the rest of her career to working in indigenous communities, among the poorest and most marginalized in the South American country.
The congregation today has a presence in 21 countries and counts roughly 850 sisters, said Sister Santillan.
“We continue to work from the example she set for us,” she said.
Mother Montoya spent her last nine years in a wheelchair, dying at the age of 75 after a prolonged illness, according to the Vatican.
The effort to have her beatified began in the 1960s. Blessed John Paul II beatified her in 1994.
In April, the congregation she founded began to hold events to honor and inform the public about the importance of her work.
“This is the result of decades of work,” Sister Santillan said. “It will be a remarkable day.”
Laura Montoya Upegui (1874-1949)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.