By Jean M. Heimann
October 21 is the feast of St. Laura of St. Catherine of Siena (1874-1949), a Colombian sister who founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena in 1914. She was renowned for her work with the native Indians of Colombia, and serves as a strong role model for South American girls.
Laura Montoya Upegui was born on May 26, 1874 in Jericó, Antioquia, Colombia, the second of three children to Juan de la Crux Montoya and Dolores Upegui. When she was only two, her father died, defending his country in the Colombian War of 1876. Consequently, the family was left in poverty after all their possessions were confiscated. Following her father's death, Laura was sent to live with her grandmother. Laura felt orphaned and alone. To help overcome her feelings of loneliness, she took refuge in Jesus. As she grew older, she was especially sustained by meditation on Sacred Scripture and the strength she received from the Eucharist.
At the age of sixteen, she decided to become a teacher in order to help her family with their financial difficulties. She was educated at the Holy Spirit School in Amalfi, Colombia, and in Medellín, Colombia, where she excelled in her studies.
She was sent to teach the indigenous peoples of Colombia and began working as a missionary to them by teaching about the Catholic faith as well. Many Colombians viewed these peoples as less than human, but Laura knew this was not the case. While teaching, she felt drawn to a religious vocation, as a Carmelite discalced nun, a cloistered order which is dedicated to the contemplative life. However, at the same time, she felt called to active missionary work, to preach the Gospel to those who do not know Christ.
Laura was determined to battle the anti-Indian bigotry in her society, and to dedicate her own life to the evangelization of the native Indians. Thus, on May 14, 1914, she founded the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Immaculate Mary and of Saint Catherine of Siena. She left Medellín together with four other young women and went to Dabeiba to live among the poor native Indians. As mother superior of her congregation, she imparted to her order a rule that combined contemplation with action.
Mother Laura died on October 21, 1949 in Medellín, after a long and painful illness. She spent the last nine years of her life in a wheelchair, where she continued to teach by example, word and writing. St. Laura was canonized by Pope Francis on May 12, 2013. Today her Missionary Sisters work in 19 countries throughout America, Africa and Europe.
At her canonization ceremony, Pope Francis praised Saint Laura for “instilling hope” in the indigenous people of her nation and for teaching in a way that respected their culture. She is Colombia’s first saint and is the patron saint of: people suffering from racial discrimination, orphans, and the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Immaculate Mary and of Saint Catherine of Siena.
In his homily at the Mass of Canonization, Pope Francis said of St Laura, "This first saint, born in the beautiful country of Columbia, teaches us to be generous with God, not to live our faith alone – as if it were possible to live faith in an isolated way – but to communicate it, to convey the joy of the Gospel with words and the witness of life in every place in which we find ourselves. Wherever we live let this light of the Gospel shine! St Laura…teaches us to welcome all without prejudice, without discrimination, without reticence, with sincere love, giving them all the best of ourselves and above all sharing with them what is most precious to us, which is not our works or our organisations, no! Our most precious possession is Christ and his Gospel."