On the Trail of St. Laura

On May 12, 2013, in an exciting ceremony broadcast from St. Peter’s Square in Rome to more than twenty countries, the Colombian nun María Laura de Jesús Montoya Upegui was canonized, following years of research by Vatican officials. The event sparked great fervor in her hometown of Jericó, Antioquia, which is now the site of one of the most popular religious pilgrimages in recent times. To make the journey and come into contact with this new reality is to witness the profound spirituality of the Latin American people.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos:  Lisa Palomino


Journalists love to be amazed. For us, any fracturing of reality, crack in our customs, or wink from chance is like the Sirens’ song to Odysseus. However, in these times beleaguered by bad news, we seldom hear optimistic reports and most stories are tainted by crime, greed, corruption, or major disasters. Isn’t the world also full of wonderful stories capable of widening our horizons? Aren’t there pleasant tidings, here and there, that we might share with the hypothetical happy reader?

With that thought in mind, seated on a comfortable bus, which is unfortunately devoid of wings, we roar along the road from Medellín to Jericó, the land that in 1874 witnessed the birth of an exceptional woman, recently recognized by the Vatican as an authentic saint: María Laura de Jesús Montoya Upegui, better known as St. Laura of Jericó.

Most of the people drawn to this town in southeastern Antioquia, founded in 1851 by Juan de la Cruz Gomez Plata —a Spanish conquistador who seemed to be more of a humanist than a greedy treasure hunter— are motivated by the Catholic legend that is imprinted on the lives of the people in this part of Colombia; it is a heritage that makes Latin Americans proud. 

Family groups, women well-versed in the Bible, hippies, environmentalists fighting to save the planet from imminent danger, doctors of theology, patients longing to be healed through their faith, children amazed by the stories their elders have told them about St. Laura, professionals, bankrupt businessmen hoping for salvation, and journalists looking for a topic for a best-seller are just a few of the many pilgrims on this journey that, incredibly enough, remains as arduous in the 21st century as it was 200 years ago.

Historians and biographers tell us that St. Laura was an amazing human being with mercy, hope, and compassion running in her veins. She was like so many others who, in exemplary transitions, give up everything to serve others and defend their fellow man from injustice, cold, fear, hunger, thirst, and intolerance. From a young age, she sacrificed the earthly happiness and bright future she was most certain to have enjoyed as the daughter of a wealthy family, preferring instead a celestial campaign into the mountains and valleys of Antioquia.

She was the daughter of a rural Antioquia where abuse, man’s cunning exploitation of man, and rampant disregard for the living conditions of the underprivileged abounded. As an educator and missionary, she founded the Order of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena. Mother Laura performed two miraculous, scientifically impossible cures, which have been the subject of lengthy theological dissertations by researchers and scholars and have inspired poetic images in the minds of her followers. 

As our bus travels swiftly –but without yet reaching its destination– we are amazed to imagine the ordeal it must have been to cross these rough and wild mountains at the time when Mother Laura was still alive and working. Shortly after leaving Medellín, most travelers experience vertigo and extreme nausea on the hairpin turns in the road that eventually get the better of novices; even I fall victim early on in this hazardous journey.

The driver explains that, for all his skill, he can do little to provide his passengers with a calm, easy passage through such steep and winding geography. “You just have to resign yourself: this is a land of saints,” he says. And so, feeling as if we’ve been spinning around on a carousel for endless hours, we watch as Jericó appears on the horizon.

Jericó: The Promised Land

Since the canonization of St. Laura of Jericó, much has been written regarding the diaphanous details of her life. Little, however, has been told about the incredible change that her people experienced after the mystical events took place. Nothing here has remained as it was: prayers permeate every last spiral of air and it would be almost impossible to make your way through town without hearing the miraculous story, woven in the 19th century, but becoming more elevated and lively with each passing day, that is present here as a leitmotiv.

St. Laura is more than a source of pride or a subject of chat for parishioners seasoned in worship and ecstasy; she is a kind of driving force of domestic life, a secret momentum, and a reason to live. We confirmed this in one of the busiest restaurants in the square, less than half a block from the cathedral, where the splendor, the legend, and the luminous power of the new saint comes into focus.

Upon entering, a hodgepodge of objects catches our attention. The place, frequented by enthusiastic diners, looks like the famous copy in Bogotá which, after all, is but a mere replica of the traditions made popular in these lands.

Here and there are unpretentious ornaments, some extravagant, others reminiscent of village celebrations or an erotic masked carnival; there are photos of smiling popular and Andean folk music idols, and gray paper cubicles filled with memorabilia, hats, and other miscellaneous junk. And, in the middle of this archetypal composition, like the ultimate patron of a naïve cosmogony, appears a portrait of St. Laura, as if watching over the scene and praying for the diners.

“Here in Jericó, absolutely everything is related to the history of our saint. It is as if we were all servants of this very human myth, so exemplary and touching,” one diner told us.

Visitors, whether believers or skeptics, Catholics or atheists, can’t help feeling a certain palpitation upon entering the cathedral in Jericó. This is the “symbolic home” of St. Laura, from which her legend radiates to the four corners of the mystical map of the universe. At the door, an impeccable, austere child meets us, as if he’s been waiting for us forever with the most powerful and sublime of messages.

This is John Steven López Arrubla, just ten years old, but capable lecturing on St. Laura with the fluency and tranquility of a theology student. Ever since he can remember he’s listened to the amazing tales of miracles and piety, and now, able to make his own decisions, all he wants is to tell the tales of her life himself. He works in a clothing store but has begun to earn a few extra pesos narrating the life and miracles of the saint. He assures us, however, that someday he’ll be a theologian and work in the Vatican.

John Steven leads us quietly through the cathedral and explains St. Laura’s hand gestures and characteristic shining eyes: “Her joined hands symbolize wisdom but also purity. The expression in her eyes, which gaze at both Heaven and Earth, speaks of a soul that, in its focused and diaphanous elevation, recognizes heavenly aspirations while remembering earthly suffering, wounds, and servitude.”

But if the cathedral is a pilgrimage destination and symbol of Jericó, the house where St. Laura was born is an authentic sanctuary in which mass is celebrated several times daily, the great canonized woman’s story is told, and different religious objects are sold.

Here Sister Delfina González, a nun of gentle movements and ancient ways, is the “official spokesperson for the life and miracles of Mother Laura.” Nearly six hundred times a day, with a serenity that attests to her inner balance, she narrates every sequence in the exemplary story that most people come to here to discover. She feels observed by the saint in her daily rituals —pointing to the font where she was baptized; telling the amazed visitors of the saint’s long expeditions on mule-back, dedicated to helping Indians, blacks, and mestizos; telling the story of the saint’s supportive parents, her hours of prostration before the crucifix, and the painstaking writing of her theological works. She feels in the presence of someone who has memorized an entire era, a complete soul, and all the geography of a time when God seemed nearer.

But the religious fervor and enthusiasm inspired by St. Laura are not confined to the cathedral or the sacred house where the legendary woman was born. Her face is on every street, everywhere: in stores selling religious objects, prayers, and stamps; in schools; in the Casa de la Cultura; and, with fascinating ease, in pool halls, money exchange offices, dance halls… Even in Antonio Sánchez’s street stall, where, in his words: “A shine costs two thousand pesos without the story of Mother Laura, or four thousand with it… So you can shine your shoes and your soul at the same time.”