BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — For weeks, billboards on buses and television spots have been announcing what promises to be Colombia's next big prime-time sensation.
But the planned debut Wednesday of a TV soap opera dramatizing the life of Colombia's only Roman Catholic saint is shrouded in controversy after devotees of the missionary nun known universally as Madre Laura filed a lawsuit seeking to correct what they say is an unseemly depiction.
Born in Colombia's coffee-growing region in 1874, Laura Montoya was a nun and teacher who devoted her life to protecting indigenous tribes from discrimination when not outright violence by the country's white elite. Her work on their behalf was emulated in poor, mostly black and indigenous communities across Colombia and today hundreds of missionaries from her order are in 21 countries, from Angola to Haiti.
Montoya was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI and her sainthood confirmed by Pope Francis a year later in a ceremony that saw Colombia, one of Latin America's most fervently Catholic nations, rejoice with pride.
Bogota-based Caracol, which is producing the 24-episode mega-production "Laura, the Colombian Saint," is known as one of the most-thriving telenovela factories in Latin America. But most of the network's productions, with names like "Without Breasts There's No Paradise" and "Cartel of the Snitches," tend to follow more sinful story lines that are popular with audiences but often criticized as inappropriate.
Given the anything-goes reputation of Colombia's airwaves, often in conflict with the country's deep faith, some sort of combustion over the series' premiere was probably unavoidable.
The Congregation of Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Sienna, the order founded by Montoya, says that despite repeated requests it was never consulted by Caracol about the script. The group questions the network's right to use Montoya's name and image, whose copyright it claims.
The order also has denounced the telenovela over fears that it will depict romantic relationships it says never existed and over tasteless dialogue by men criticizing Montoya's physical appearance.
"We're all disgusted by the bad image they're giving our saint," Mother Maria del Carmen, a devotee who lives in congregation's headquarters in western Antioquia province, told The Associated Press. She stressed that she was speaking for herself and not the organization.
"The network wants a high rating among young audiences without adapting the script to her biography and putting things out there that aren't real," she said.
Caracol issued a statement saying it is unable to comment while the lawsuit is pending but that under no circumstances will the show be pulled from the air.
One of the nun's biographers says her devotees may be overreacting. To date the only segment of the telenovela that Colombians have seen is a six-minute trailer showing a young Montoya touching hands with a suitor but otherwise resolute in her faith and missionary work.
"The nuns are scandalized by everything," said Manuel Diaz Alvarez, a priest living in Venezuela who wrote a 2004 biography of Montoya. "She was someone who overcame obstacles little by little, not a stupid angel who came from above."