Blessed Mother Laura Montoya, who died in 1949 after a career spent working with poor indigenous Colombians, became the first Colombian saint on May 12.

PHOTO | CNS

Blessed Mother Laura Montoya, who died in 1949 after a career spent working with poor indigenous Colombians, became the first Colombian saint on May 12.

May 27, 2013
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

St. Laura Montoya, who died in 1949 after a career spent working with poor indigenous Colombians, was canonized May 12 and became the first Colombian saint.

Pope Francis praised St. Laura as a "spiritual mother of the indigenous peoples, in whom she infused hope" and who she taught about God in a way that "respected their culture and was not opposed to it."

"Mother Laura" founded the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena, who today "live and bring the Gospel to the most remote and needy places, as a kind of vanguard of the Church," the pope said at the canonization ceremony.

"She teaches us to see the face of Jesus reflected in the other," the pope said.

St. Laura challenges us "to overcome indifference and individualism, welcoming everyone without prejudice or constraints, with love, giving the best of ourselves and above all, sharing with them the most valuable thing we have, which is not our works or our organizations" but "Christ and his Gospel," Pope Francis said.

St. Laura was born in a small town in mountainous north-central Colombia in 1874. When she was just two 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, St. Laura 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, she 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 Cristina Santillan, a member of the Missionary Sisters, said St. Laura 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.

"It was a 10-day journey to reach indigenous peoples that (at the time) were considered savage, soulless and irrational."

THE MOST MARGINALIZED

This work led her to start her religious order in 1914. She dedicated the rest of her active life 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.

"We continue to work from the example she set for us," said Santillan.

St. Laura spent her last nine years in a wheelchair, dying at the age of 75 in 1949 in Medellin after a prolonged illness.

She is the first saint born in Colombia, the world's sixth-largest Catholic country by population and where 82 per cent of the population is Catholic.