‘To Win Them All for Christ’- Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui

22 Aug
Colombia is blessed with abundant natural richness and diversity. Over one tenth of all known species of organisms in the world are found there. She is the only South American nation with both Pacific and Caribbean coastline. Also, three major ranges of the Andes mountains merge into a single continental backbone in southwestern Colombia, but are mostly separated by the Cauca and Magdalena river valleys. The remainder of the country’s land is comprised of plains, desert, and rainforest, and a small portion of Colombia’s southernmost boundary follows the mighty Amazon River.The natural beauty of Colombia is complemented by her human wonders. Caucasian descendants of the first Spanish settlers live and work alongside black men and women whose ancestors were shipped as slaves from Africa. Aboriginal peoples of several traditions make up a small but significant minority of Colombians.

However, despite enormous potential, Colombia has been mired in near-constant armed conflict since her decade-long fight for independence from imperial Spain that culminated in the creation of Gran Colombia on August 7, 1819. Occasionally, the low-level fighting has boiled over into large-scale civil war, as in the Thousand Days’ War (Guerra de Mil Días) of 1900-1903 that resulted in the secession of Panama from the rest of Colombia. Since 1863, only one presidential term in office, from 1874 to 1876, has been free of mostly politically-motivated warfare. The face of conflict has changed over time. In the last forty years, for example, leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries have presided over lawless chaos fueled and financed by the drug trade that has made Colombia internationally infamous. Colombia boasts one of Latin America’s highest economic growth rates, but also has the world’s highest rate of internally-displaced persons, greater than that of Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

In the midst of almost continuous bloodshed, Colombia has counted many great and holy people among her citizens, most of whom are unknown. One such devoted and saintly model for Colombia is Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui, who lived much of her childhood in extreme poverty. Blessed Laura later founded an order of religious sisters dedicated to teaching the Christian faith to the Aboriginal peoples deep in the jungles. In 2004, Laura Montoya Upegui became the first Colombian woman ever beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. The majority of Colombians are unfamiliar with her story, despite her autobiography.

I would not have become aware of Blessed Laura’s life had I not been privileged to have taught Grade 11 French, along with four other courses, one in English and three in French, at four grade levels at Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (INSA) in Cali, Colombia. The graduating eleventh grade class at INSA was a particularly brilliant group of students, but within this class of 15-to-17-year-olds that would make any teacher beam with pride, one of them, named Carlos, stood out.

Carlos was in my regular Grade 11 French course and was one of five of the most talented members of INSA’s Class of 2008 who also took the French elective, wherein I had the freedom to plan the course curriculum with special attention to aspects of French culture and history that would hopefully interest and enlighten both myself and the students. In the first semester of the school year, prior to my arrival in Cali, another French teacher with whom I would teach the French elective had presented an account of the life of 15th-century martyr St. Joan of Arc (In French, Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, 1412-1431). I was encouraged to integrate a discussion of the Catholic Church’s contribution to French culture and of her influence on the students’ own lives. To smoothen the transition from the opening semester, I chose the second of two plays by Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux about Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, called Jeanne d’Arc accomplissant sa mission (Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission). This play, the longest and best-known of the eight theatrical works by Ste. Thérèse published together as Récréations pieuses (Pious Recreations), was written for January 21, 1895, the feast day of St. Agnes, the patroness of Mother Agnes of Jesus, then-Prioress of the Lisieux Carmel and also Thérèse’s second-oldest sister. (1)

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, partly in response to increasing anticlericalism in France, devotion to Ste. Jeanne d’Arc was re-awakened, nearly five hundred years after her death at the stake in Rouen. Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus capitalized on efforts to make Jeanne d’Arc more widely known in France and worldwide. Well-researched and ever-sensitive to historical accuracy and to her teaching role within and beyond her small monastic community, Ste. Thérèse composed two plays about her heroic compatriot that brought the story of Ste. Jeanne d’Arc into contemporary relevance and interest and led to her long-awaited canonization in 1920, just five years before the official recognition of Thérèse’s own sainthood.

The day after the canonization ceremony for Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux, May 18, 1925, Pope Pius XI called the young Carmelite a “second Jeanne d’Arc.” (2) On May 3, 1944, with France devastated by World War II- Lisieux itself was 75 per cent destroyed and one in ten of its inhabitants were killed in at least ten Allied bombardments between June 6 and August 22, 1944, following four years of Nazi occupation- Pope Pius XII declared Ste. Thérèse of Liseux French co-patroness along with Ste. Jeanne d’Arc. (3) The story of the Maid of Orléans, as told by Thérèse of Lisieux, is:

a dynamic unity, across time and space, of an ongoing mission. Yesterday, Chinon, Orléans, Reims, Rouen. Today, quite simply all of France. It is a unique exploit that continues to unfold before our eyes. From the perspective of faith that is Thérèse’s, it is in Heaven, today like yesterday, where the destiny of the fatherland is played out… For Thérèse, the summit of Jeanne’s epic is found neither at Orléans nor at Reims, but at Rouen. at the stake… Upon hearing the word of God, [Jeanne] asks the meaning of her humanly incomprehensible destiny, thus the dialogue of the Archangel Gabriel with the prisoner. The one whom tradition considers the angel of Gethsemane comes to lift the heroine up to her martyrdom, unveiling to her the face of Christ in His Passion. (4)

Both Jeanne and Thérèse died in union with the Lord of Gethsemane and of Calvary, and both were raised to Heavenly glory with Him. The former is a martyr by the strict definition; Jeanne was captured in battle, was betrayed by the king and country she fought to defend, was sold into enemy hands, and was burned as a witch at nineteen years of age. The latter, who succumbed to tuberculosis at age twenty-four, lived and died in and of love for God, and is rightly recognized as a patroness of the missions and of missionaries.

Many have been deeply moved by such examples of heroism, purity, and sanctity. One of those examples, although her life was less famous than those of Thérèse of Lisieux and Jeanne d’Arc, is Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui. Toward the end of my French elective course, after the class had studied Ste. Jeanne d’Arc and Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1225), like Jeanne and Thérèse a genuine lover of God and of all His creation whose mother was French-born and whose father traded silk cloth in France and was attracted to all things French, I asked whether any of the students had a patron or otherwise favourite saint whose life they would like to write about. Of the five teenagers in the course, only Carlos, in eloquent French no less, answered the question fully on the final exam. Thus I was introduced to Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui and was inspired to do further research and then to write an article on this great teacher of the Native peoples of the Colombian rainforest.

María Laura Jesús Montoya Upegui was born to Dolores Upegui and to Juan de la Cruz Montoya on May 26, 1874. She was baptized four days later. Laura entered the world during a rare period of peace in Colombia that followed the ratification of the Rionegro Constitution of 1863. Between Independence in 1819 and the signing of the Rionegro Constitution, Colombia’s moderate Liberals and Conservatives exchanged power effectively, each bringing necessary reforms and constructive policies to the country. For example, the Liberals abolished slavery in 1848, while the Conservatives encouraged co-operation between Church and state and strong international relations.

By 1863, though, cracks were beginning to appear in the political system that had guided Colombia for three decades. Although the Rionegro Constitution was largely brokered by moderate members of the governing Liberal Party, some radical Liberals proposed laws that would punish the Conservative Party for having introduced anti-Liberal legislation during its previous term in office. The bipartisan conflict escalated over successive presidential terms until 1874, then deceptive calm swept over the country. Apparent peace was short-lived while sparring politicians moved Colombia increasingly close to civil war. Radical Liberals took power in 1876. Anticlerical and anti-Conservative laws were immediately passed and enforced; opponents of the ruling party were imprisoned, assassinated, or had their property confiscated. These crimes motivated even moderate Conservatives to take up arms to protect their civil rights. Juan dela Cruz Montoya, a supporter of the Conservative cause, was killed outside of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city after Bogotá, in 1876. Dolores Upegui was left to raise Laura and her two other children alone and in extreme poverty, especially after the national government forced the family to leave their home.

Laura was enrolled in Holy Spirit School (Colegio Espíritu Santo) in Amalfi, Antióquia. The Montoya family was poor before the assassination of Juan de la Cruz, but after 1876 it was left destitute. Laura Montoya Upegui was not permitted to complete secondary school, dropping out to support her family. In 1890, at only sixteen years old, Laura was sent to Medellín’s Immaculate Conception Normal School (Normal de Institutoras de la Inmaculada Concepción). She was not expected to succeed in her studies to become a teacher at such a young age, especially without having finished high school. However, she persevered and achieved some of the highest grades upon graduation from the Immaculate Conception Normal School.

Laura Montoya Upegui remained in Medellín, providing for herself and for her family by teaching elementary schoolchidren. Blessed Laura taught not only “academic knowledge, but sought to diffuse Gospel teaching and values.” (5) Meanwhile, naturally inclined toward contemplative prayer, Laura desired life as a cloistered Discalced Carmelite nun. The call to active missionary life, though, proved stronger. In 1908, Laura left Medellín to work among the Native people in the Uraba and Sarare regions of Colombia. This, she said, was “God’s project” (6), which exceeded yet also fulfilled Blessed Laura’s desire to contemplate and to serve the Lord and His people.

Her work in the jungle soon caught the attention of the Bishop of Santa Fe de Antióquia, Monsignor Maximiliano Crespo. His Excellency approved the mission in Dabeiba del Uraba, as well as Laura Montoya’s foundation of a new religious Order, the Missionairies of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena, on May 14, 1914. The congregation’s main purpose was to teach Catechism and basic-level academic subjects to Aboriginal children. The sisters, called ‘Lauristas’ after their foundress, lived by a Rule that was both active and contemplative, drawing upon Holy Scripture and pre-existing spiritual traditions, especially the Ignatian fusion of contemplation and action that, as per the Jesuit motto itself, seeks “the greater glory of God” (7) above all, and the Discalced Carmelite practice of regimented prayer for the salvation of souls.

The Lauristas adopted black habits with white veils. Their habits included the Order’s emblem, a heart that encircled the Latin word ‘Sitio’- “I thirst”- Jesus’s cry from the Cross. Along with the exemplary thirst for souls shown by Mother Laura and by her companions, the Missionairies of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena would learn to what extent they would need to suffer for Christ’s name. They encountered racial discrimination; many Colombians did not favour the ‘Indian Works’. The sisters were viewed as “‘religious goats’ going out to the wilderness to give the ‘wild beasts’ a living catechism.” ( 8 )

Only self-sacrifice would counter the unjust attitudes against Mother Laura’s community and the Natives. Laura Montoya Upegui had written previously, “I looked upon those living in the jungles as if they were real sons.” (9) In the Gospels, John the Baptist is positioned as a herald of the Lord- the one who would “make [Jesus] known.” (10) John is the first missionary of the wilderness mentioned in the New Testament. Like John the Baptist, Blessed Laura knew the importance of solidarity with those she would bring to Christianity. Her role was to somehow acquaint the Natives with the Christ who lived in the hearts of the sisters and of the Natives, to make known the Divine Source of all goodness to a people that did not yet know Him. Through kindness and an emphasis on love and obedience toward the Church, Mother Laura nurtured new vocations to her Order and inspired the sisters who had been alongside her from the beginning of the Indian Works as well as the Natives themselves, who were beginning to discover the power of the Christian message. In the process, she wished to remain unknown. The words of St. John the Baptist about Jesus appropriately summarize the hidden labour of the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena: “So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (11)

In her autobiography, Mother Laura wrote about essential qualities of the women who would respond to the vocation to bring Christ to the First Peoples of Colombia:

There’s a need for intrepid women, valiant and on fire with the love of God, who would be able to unite their lives with those of the poor inhabitants of the jungle, to lift them toward God.

Necesitaba mujeres intrépidas, valientes, inflamadas en el amor de Dios, que pudieran asimilar su vida a la de los pobres habitantes de la selva, para levantarlos hacia Dios. (12)

To be lifted toward God often entails suffering, as Christ Himself taught by His ultimate gift of Himself out of pure love on the Cross.Mother Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena, as she was known in religious life, experienced the agony of a long physical decline near the end of her life. Mother Laura’s last nine years were spent confined to a wheelchair. During this time, though, she continued to write and to guide the members of her religious community by her wise and serene example. Like St. Joan of Arc, Blessed Laura’s greatest victory was in giving herself to God until her last breath. She, too, was a daughter of God who had come face to face with the suffering Servant and united herself to Him.

Laura Montoya Upegui quietly went to the Lord on October 21, 1949. She was seventy-five years old and almost completely immobile. Much work among the Native people of Colombia had yet to be accomplished, and once again the country edged toward civil war. The April 9, 1949 assassination of popular moderate Liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, widely expected to be Colombia’s next president, ignited ten years of violence (‘La violencia’, also called ‘el Bogotazo’, because the centre of unrest was in Bogotá, the national capital) that left 180 000 Colombiansdead. The Indian Works were delayed, but the sisters continued undaunted and eventually expanded internationally. At Mother Laura’s death, the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena were present in three countries. Today, the Order includes ninety houses in nineteen countries in South America, in Africa, and in Europe. (13)

Mother Laura of St. Catherine of Sienawas declared Venerable on January 22, 1991. The miraculous cure of an 86-year-old woman with uterine cancer was attributed to Mother Laura’s intercession. In his announcement of the decree from the Holy See on this miracle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints José Saraivo Cardinal Martins recognized Mother Laura’s wish to “become an Indian with the Indians to win them all for Christ.” (14) The Holy See also praised Mother Laura’s “understanding of the human vocation and the divine dignity of the Indians.” (15) Laura Montoya Upegui was beatified on April 25, 2004 by Pope John Paul II. Her feast day is October 21. (16)

Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui, pray for us and especially for the students, graduates, teachers, support staff, and administrators of Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Cali. We ask especially for peace in Colombia and in all the world, that the dignity of all human beings be recognized regardless of race, and that all might be brought into the glory of God.

A short prayer (17), written by Blessed Laura near the end of her life and in the midst of the destruction wrought by Colombia’s history of violence, is a poignant example of the selflessness and humility of this sister for whom we also pray for canonization:

 

Destroy me, O Lord,

And upon my ruins

Build a monument

To Your Glory.

 

Destrúyeme, Señor,

Y sobre mis ruinas

Levanta un monumento

a tu Gloria.

 

Amen.

WRS

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “‘To Win Them All for Christ’- Blessed Laura Montoya Upegui”

  1. canadiancatholicblog August 22, 2008 at 9:15 am #

    Notes:

    (1) Thérèse de Lisieux, Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1992, p. 1414.

    (2) Ibid., p. 1415.

    (3) Stéphane-Joseph Piat, O.F.M., Céline, Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face: Sister and Witness to St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1997, pp.129-131.

    (4) Thérèse de Lisieux, Oeuvres Complètes, p. 1415. The translation from French is mine.

    (5) http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ ns_lit_doc_20040425_montoya_en.html

    (6) Ibid.

    (7) The Jesuit motto is Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God).

    ( 8 ) http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ ns_lit_doc_20040425_montoya_en.html

    (9) Ibid.

    (10) John 1:31

    (11) John 3:30

    (12) http://www.oremosjuntos.com/SantoralLatino/LauraMontoya Upegui.html. The English translation from Spanish is mine.

    (13) Ibid.

    (14) http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ ns_lit_doc_20040425_montoya_en.html

    (15) Ibid.

    (16) Ibid.

    (17) http://www.oremosjuntos.com/SantoralLatino/LauraMontoya Upegui.html.

  2. Fernando Efraím Garcés Soto Montoya August 6, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    In 2007 and 2008 I went from Miami Beach to Colombia and visited her crypt in Belencito, a Medellín neighbourhood, had a very revealing conversation with the extremely gracious nuns heoused there, and was quite inspired in the process. The father of Mother María Laura de Jesús Montoya Upegui was my father Efraím Garcés Montoya’s relative.
    I feel honored to be related to this future Colombian-born Saint.

    Fernando Efraím Garcés Soto Montoya

  3. Liliana Garcia-Barkes August 12, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    Thank you for giving a glance to our great Colombian Saint! May her intersection before God help us to achieve the perseverance we need to reach heaven someday!

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