Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Laura Montoya Upegui

Last year, I think I did a bit better with a greater variety of witnesses for religious freedom around the world. This year, I think we have a number of women who were advocates for people whose spiritual lives were hampered or blocked mainly by secular authorities, but also by the expectations of culture. And church leadership somewhat skeptical of ministry at the margins.

Recently canonized by Pope Francis, the life’s witness of Laura Montoya Upegui of Colombia struck me as a worthy inclusion in our series.

The official Vatican page is here. In summary, her youth:

  • Laura’s father, a physician, died when she was two years old.
  • She lived a childhood of extreme poverty. At times, she was sent by her mother to live with relatives, and she suffered emotionally because of this.
  • Though she was a bright student, she was marginalized by classmates of wealthier families.
  • As a teenager, she was trained as a school teacher, beginning a long career as an educator at age 19.

As a teacher, she experienced opposition because of her effort to weave Gospel values into basic educational instruction. But this was just the beginning.

Throughout her twenties, she taught in various schools in the Colombian state of Antioquia. But she became conscious of two movements in her life. First, she was drawn to Carmelite spirituality and wished to become a contemplative in that order. She also felt the stirrings to serve native Colombians far from the urban areas of her country.

But the early twentieth century in Latin America was not a good time to be moving in such a direction and expect to gain support. Medellín’s archbishop, Manuel José Caicedo Martínez, considered Laura too much of a radical. Other clergy were shocked at the prospect of a young woman serving “wild beasts,” with no modern conveniences, and no spiritual guidance from priests.

Laura wrote a lengthy letter to Pope Pius X, and a bit later she caught the notice of a Jesuit priest, Luis Javier Muñoz. Fr Muñoz counseled her to contact a prelate sympathetic to the plight of the poor, Maximiliano Crespo Rivera, the bishop of Santa Fe de Antioquia.

In 1913, accompanied by a small band of catechists, Laura moved to Dabeiba. A year later, with the approval of Bishop Crespo, she founded the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St Catherine of Siena.

Laura still encountered opposition, but she persisted, employing a “pedagogy of love,” seeing herself as a Mother to the people she educated and evangelized. But her struggles extended to difficult relationships with other upper-crust churchmen.

Part of the Diocese of Antioquia was assigned to an apostolic prefecture in 1918. Upon returning from a year-long missionary journey into the deep jungle, Mother Laura found the political landscape had shifted in her absence. Father Jose Joaquin Arteaga, now in charge, was far less open to women missionaries. He desired instead to impose his own rules on Mother Laura and her sisters–the professed combination of apostolic service and contemplative prayer was deemed insufficient. Bishop Crespo advised her to move on.

For the final decade of her life, Mother Laura settled in Medellín, where this worthy woman was confined to a wheelchair with a debilitating inflammation of the lymphatic system. She continued to teach, write, and pray. But she was unable to return to the jungles of Colombia. The poor of Medellín were her final companions. She never saw her community achieve canonical approval. But she did achieve her life’s vision of being “an Indian among Indians.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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