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The grace of the anthill

· Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt tells the story of Laura Montoya Upegui, saint of the month ·

Anitoqiua is a region north-west of Columbia. It is characterized by majestic mountains, lush vegetation, fertile ground, and a kind and industrious people. It is in this region, in Jericó, that the first Columbian saint, Laura Montoya Upequi, was born in 1874.

Orphaned while she was still a little girl, raised in her family various towns, and formed in the Catholic faith of her people, at the age of seven Laura had a powerful experience of God which she called “the grace of the anthill”. The child was amusing herself by watching several ants carrying small leaves to their hill, and suddenly she was struck but the certainty “that God was (…) I felt it a long time without knowing what I was feeling, I couldn’t speak (…) I looked again at the anthill and I felt God in it, with an unspeakable tenderness”. This experience indelibly marked her interior life.

As a young lady she moved to Medellín, the capital of Antioquia, to study to be a teacher and she lived in various places in the area working in this profession. Her spiritual life and her relationship with God were growing and she felt that a vocation to Carmel was maturing in her. At the same time she experienced an increasing concern for the natives of Antioquia. The idea that there were still people in remote areas who didn’t know the love of God was for Laura like a sharp pain that gave her no rest. She wondered how she might reach them; in the presence of God, she thought about pedagogical methods to do it. Thus she left behind the cloister and developed another idea: if the natives were fleeing because they felt threatened in seeing missionaries arriving, perhaps if they were to see women coming they would feel less in danger, which would have allowed her to begin a “work of the Indians” that would open new paths to the priests.

Mother Laura surrounded by Katian Indians on the “El Cuchillon” hill (Anioquia, 1939)..

Laura shared this idea with students and people she knew, and she spoke about it with her spiritual directors. The former were enthusiastic, the latter listened and were perplexed. Several said that she was mad and sought to dissuade her, noting - among the various arguments - the repeated failures of other missionary expeditions. However, she received support from several members of the hierarchy who looked upon this woman’s passionate concern as providential.

In 1914, at the age of 40, Laura departed with six companions for the remote region of Dabeiba. The expedition - made up of missionaries, mule tracks and mules - aroused curiosity, solidarity and admiration in Medellín. The women travelers chose as their motto: “Better death that turning back” (antes muertas que vueltas).

Once they reached their destination, they experimented with the methods designed to help them draw near to the Indians. Respect for their identity: they perceived distrust in the natives, but for Laura faith did not require that the Indians give up their culture.

That experience was the beginning of the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St Catherine of Siena. They wore common clothing, lived in huts without walls, travelled about on mules and at times were obliged to do without the Sacraments or prayer before the Tabernacle, in order to be able to cross through the woods in search of the natives in the most remote areas. Mother Laura taught her daughters to offer this difficulty to God as a “baptist sacrifice”, since they like John the Baptist, sometimes had to be deprived of the presence of Jesus “so that Jesus might increase in the souls of those unknown to them”.

In 1917 canonical recognition was given: but that form of religious life by its newness seemed rather unreliable to many. Jealousies and suspicions began to arise against Mother Laura. In 1925 the missionaries were forced to leave Dabeide, the cradle of their Congregation. However, they were welcomed in other ares of Columbia. In 1930 Mother Laura, despite her frail health, went to Rome in order to obtain adecree of praise for her Congregation. Not having achieved her goal, she returned to Columbia and continued to work to expand and consolidate the work. She died in Medellín on 21 October 1949.

Mother Laura’s legacy can be seen in the work of the “laurite” missionaries, by visiting the monastery in Medellin, but also by reading her profound and simple mystical writings. Her Autobiography contains impassioned accounts of the twists and turns of Columbian lands side by side passages of lofty spirituality. In the Voces misiticas de la naturaleza she seeks to teach the missionaries to discover the presence of God even where there are neither chapels nor Tabernacles, but only woods.

Laura Montoya Upegui is like an intense flame burning for the love of God and a desire that he may be known and loved. Her love does not stop in the face of difficulty, and neither does it stop when faced with misunderstanding which she fell victim to because of her bold ideas.

Examples like hers show us what the heart of a woman is capable of when she allows herself to be set on fire with love for God.

The author

Born in Medellín, in Columbia on 5 March 1971, Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt is a consecrated laywoman of the Marian Fraternity of Reconciliation. She earned her degree in patristic theology and the history of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She has carried out various roles within her community, especially in the areas of vocational formation, youth ministry and vocational discernment. Since May 2009 she has served as head of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

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