Colombia's First Saint To Be Canonized Was A Champion Of The Indigenous

When Laura Montoya, the first Colombian to be elevated to sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church, left urban society in 1914 and moved to the jungle to minister to indigenous people she was generally considered crazy.

"It was inconceivable that a woman would go live in the hills with the Indians, without any comforts, without any spiritual guidance," said Mother Estefania Martínez, who was with Montoya during her last three years and is now 90 years old.

Known as Mother Laura, the nun is to be canonized on Sunday by Pope Francis in Rome. She founded the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and Saint Catherine of Sienna when she and four other young women moved to what was then dense jungle to "become an Indian with the Indians," according to her Vatican biography.

Three big video screens were set up in the center of her hometown, Jerico in the western state of Antioquia, so townspeople can watch the canonization ceremony.

Born in 1874, Montoya lost her father at age 2. After her mother moved the family to Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, she trained to be an elementary school teacher. But she ultimately decided missionary work was her calling.

By the time she died in 1949 at age 75, Montoya's mission had spread to three countries. The mission now has a presence in about 20 nations, the Vatican says.

Martínez, who was 20 when she joined Montoya's religious order, said she knew her from childhood because her mother and aunt had gone to high school with her.

Living in the jungle took a heavy toll on Montoya's health, and she spent the last decade of her life in a wheelchair. Montoya always had a fever and died of lymphangitis, an inflammation or infection of the lymphatic system, Martínez said.

"Her legs became incredibly swollen," said Martínez. "They administered ointment with gauze and she would say: ' I feel like they're putting on canvas sacks.' "

Martínez said that just after Montoya died "it began to rain cats and dogs ... the next day when we buried her in the crypt it didn't stop raining. And we, in white habit and blue scapular, got soaked" and no one even tried to protect themselves from the rain.

Montoya is buried in Belencito, one of Medellín's poorest neighborhoods.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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