Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres
East Timor
since 1993
The love of Christ impels us to manifest his goodnes and love.

For the last 24 years, not many people knew about East Timor. And these who knew did not care much. Far from the attention of the media, especially the Western media, its sad history has not commanded the attention of world leaders.

Tucked away on the southern and of the Indonesian archipelago, about 300 miles north of Australia, this small and isolated crocodile-shaped land has a population of about 800,000 most of whom are Catholics.
In 1975, when the Portuguese colonial administration collapsed (East Timor was ruled by Portal for 200 years), Indonesian troops rushed into the power vacuum. The United Nations condemned that move, but took no action to stop it. The international community had never formally recognized Indonea’s claim of sovereignty over the territory, but there had been very little support for East Timor independence movement from the international community. Many adult East Timorese have vivid memories of the Indonesian invasion in 1975, and the brutal decade of political oppression and economic devastation followed, costing the lives of about 200,000 East Timor - a staggering 30 percent of the population.

SPC’s direct and active solidarity with East Timor began in 1993. At the invitation of Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, SDB, (Nobel Peace Prize Awardee, 1996) the Congregation opted to open the first and only Catholic hospital in this Catholic country. This 50-bed hospital, built and owned by the Congregation served the people of Suai and its surrounding villages and beyond the border with Indonesian West Timor. At the outbreak of the violence in September, 1999, Sr. Mary Baradero, a missionary from the Philippines and three professed Indonesian Sisters supervised the hospital, working with local East Timorese staff. Besides the work in the hospital, the Sisters helped in the parish as catechists. They visited the village people in their homes and assisted at the village chapels for the celebration of the Eucharist or the Word.
In April, 1999, barely 6 months before the historic referendum for independence, a new house (formerly a vehicle workshop) was established in the capital city of Dili. Sister Bernadette, another missionary from the Philippines and Sr. Fransiska Tri Ergawanti, a young professed Indonesian, were preparing to assist the Dili at the retreat and formation center, while I worked with the Bishop Belo Center for Peace and Development. Because of the turbulent situation in the country then, it was not possible to open the retreat center. The Center for Peace and Development was only a month old when the violence erupted.

In the month of May, 1999, Portugal, Indonesia and the United Nations signed a tripartite agreement stipulating that a referendum for independence was to take place in East Timor. As soon as that referendum was announced, a new sort of violence begun to occur. East Timorese paramilitary groups (militias) trained and backed by the Indonesian military launched a series of assaults on individuals, organizations, and even entire towns were identified as supporting the independence movement. Some accused the Church of taking sides with the movement. Thus, as mentioned in the Catholic World Report: “the Church which is the most visible institution in an impoverished society and symbol of Christian Timorese culture amidst Indonesian’s Islamic society, became a special target of violence… The resistance leaders charged that the militia groups had been formed and supported by the Indonesian military, in order to intimidate voters and urged the people of East Timor to take up arms. Bishop Belo resisted the call to arms, but agreed that the Indonesian military were encouraging militia groups with money and any support available”.

As militia attacks increased in frequency and severity, Bishop Belo of Dili and Bishop nascimento of Baucau initiated DARE II (Dare is a place near Dili where some of the leaders of both pro-integration (with Indonesia) and pro-independence groups have had some seminary training). Like Dare I, Dare II was an attempt at mediation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. As the only woman religious actively participating in this endeavor, as a member of the Steering Committee, as an interpreter and liturgist, it was for me, more a mission than a risk to be there as SPC in solidarity with the suffering East Timorese people. Our own Sr. Bernardita Guhit, who is the Executive Secretary of the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Bishops of Conference of Indonesia, was present as an observer. And, as a Church observer for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) before, during and after the referendum, I had seen with my own eyes, the enthusiasm of the people to exercise their right to vote: Old men and women, nursing mothers cradling their babies and even the sick walked for miles to get to the polling stations (some before sunrise) to cast their vote. It was a concrete proof of the people’s desire for self-determination. In my heart I said: “It is good to be there.”

Two violent incidents happened just in front of our house during the last day of referendum campaign. A pro-integration youth was mauled, beaten, and stabbed by the crowd gathered there. Sister Bernadette was beside herself, oblivious of the angry crowd, screaming at the top of her voice: “Stop it, stop it, we are Christians!” The youth was a gory sight. (Photo below: Sr. Bernadette on background; Sr. Carmen on foreground). On the way to the hospital he cried: “Sister, I m going to die.” Not long afterwards, just a few meters from where the youth was mauled, a university student clutching his plastic sandals in one hand and a rock in the other came running for his life; on his heels were soldiers armed with automatic weapons. As one of the soldier aimed at the youth, Sr. Bernadette cried: “Don t, don t do it, Sir!” At that very moment an ear-splitting blast pierced the tense silence and the boy fell dead, soaked in his own blood. It was said that the militias were after him and he implored protection from the soldiers who were tasked by the UN to keep peace and security. A woman in the crowd went hysterical. The crowd wept in helpless anger, sorrow, and fear. It was one of the most traumatic experiences we had since we came to East Timor. Long afterwards we teased Sr. Bernadette: “What if the soldier shot you when you were screaming at him. You’d be the first martyr in SPC history.” Joking aside, it could have happened.

At 9 o clock in the morning of September 4, we watched the Secretary General of the United Nations announce the results of the referendum on TV. East Timor is free at last! An overwhelming majority of the people opted for independence. It was the people’s victory! They sang and dances in the streets shouting, “Viva, Timor Lester.” But, the moment also signaled the beginning of destruction. Only minutes after the historic announcement, about a hundred people cramped into our house and yard seeking refuge. It was horrifying, knowing that Church workers had been in the militia’s hit list. At 1 p.m. of the same day, the shooting, killing, looting, and burning began. Every act of terror seemed systematic and schedule indeed. We kept inside the house for 3 days, often sitting before the Blessed Sacrament to seek comfort. We went out only to comfort, in turn, the refugees behind the house, and to look at the smoke rising towards the Dili sky like huge black umbrellas on a gloomy day. We slept with or habits on (If one could sleep at all). No one dared to move around. When the shooting stopped momentarily, we could hear the deathly silence outside. This time, some reporters of the foreign media were there to record in their high-tech cameras those horrible crimes against humanity, for you and for the whole world to see.

In the morning of September 7, we called the Canossians, the Dominicans, the SVDs and other religious in Dili. Most have already left. At the “advice” of the police we moved to their headquarters for eventual evacuation to Atambua in Indonesian West Timor in spite of Sr. Bernadette’s desire to remain. The people who took refuge in our house preferred to hide in the mountains nearby rather than move with us to the police headquarters. Many East Timorese were always wary of the military. Like us, tens of thousands of East Timorese “opted” to move to West Timor as refugees. This was the time when thousands of families were separated from each other and about 200,000 became displaced persons. This was the beginning of the huge task of the United Nations high Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Operations for Migrants (IOM).

On September 8, we were united with our Sisters from Suai. As a community, they had decided to remain in the hospital to attend to any possible victims during the referendum. At this time, the hospital was already surrounded by soldiers, to “secure   the place”, they said. It was only two days before that the internationally known “Massacre of Suai” happened: Father Hilario Madeira, the parish priest (Mother General met him during her visit to Suai), and his assistant Fr. Francisco Soares, both indigenous priests together with Fr. Dewanto, an Indonesian Jesuit were martyred. Eye-witnesses testified that Fr. Hilario was shot at the back and then hacked with a machete. The two other priests died of machete wounds. Although still unconfirmed, it is said that no less than 500 men, women, and children were also killed  that day ( the Church and the yard in front served as temporary shelter for about 4,000 people who came down from the mountains- victims of intimidation and terror ) to cast their votes.

Our Sisters of Suai recounted that one of the Canossian Sisters who lived near the church and was witness to the massacre, dared to go to the hospital which is three kilometers away, to inform them that the priests had been killed and that she overhead a soldier boasting: “Now that the priests are finished, let us have the Sisters for our wives.” That was the last straw that broke the Sisters resolves to remain. The Sisters left Suai with 12 of their staff including one East Timorese doctor who was in the militia hit list.

Towards the end of September, the 4 Sisters of suai and one from Dili returned to Indonesia while Sr. Bernadette and I took refuge in Australia. Our own Sr. Miriam and other religious sisters, priests, and lay people in Australia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines managed to negotiate and arrange for our safe passage to Australia. We thought then that this was the easiest way to go back to our people. Our six weeks sojoum in Australia was spent with East Timor refugees who were housed at a former army barracks at East Hills, near Sydney. We worked as interpreters, “security blankets”, baby sitters, etc for our 650 refugees. We lived community with our Sisters at Lane Cove during the week ends.

At the breaking of dawn on November 5, on board the Katamaran, an Australia ship, we could already see the 27- meter statue of Cristo Rey atop one of the hills of East Timor. Most of the passengers were Australian soldiers in complete combat gear.  After sailing for about 12 hours, we cast anchor at Dili port. We noticed the big number of military personnel busy unloading from other ships, sacks and sacks of rice and other foodstuffs and then loading them on trucks ready for distribution to the local population. We saw row upon row of make- shift houses along the shore made from burnt, rusty corrugated sheets and plastic tarpaulins. People were moving up and about aimlessly. Our steps quickened and our eyes searched for familiar faces as we went down the ramp. Then, we saw Manito, a handyman who used to do odd jobs in our house. With a warm welcome embrace he whispered with much emotion: “Madre, they burned my house, my father’s and my sister’s, too”. How does one react to such greetings?

Then, driving through the scorched and scarred city, we saw almost nothing but debris: gnarled and twisted iron beams and corrugated roofing, piles and piles of ash, tons and tons of cracked and crushed plaster walls. One has to see for oneself to realize the enormity and the gravity of the devastation. Some people say that that could not have been the work of humans. It was not the work of an atom bomb nor surface to surface missiles. It was ablution with gasoline and the flame of a matchstick, but the damage done is indescribable nonetheless. One has to see it to feel the ugliness, the monstrousity, the barbarity, the utter inhumanity of it all. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Bishop Belo on his return from his forced exile abroad said: “it is like hell!”

We had mixed feelings as we entered our house for the first time in independent East Timor. Ours was one of a handful of houses on our side of the street not razed by fire. We were lucky to have a roof over our head; walls to keep us from dust, heat, and rain; a tiled floor to sleep on. The soldiers and their militias were kind enough to leave us one deformed filing cabinet. They were thorough indeed. They took everything, even the electrical fixtures and wiring, brooms, clotheslines and all. What made our day was the kindness of our neighbors who sent two old plastic chairs from their own meager belongings for the “grandmother nuns to sit on”, they said.

A few weeks later, I boarded a UN helicopter to Suai. Suai is a town located 25 kilometers from the border with Indonesian West Timor. When I saw our hospital, I simply broke down before the commander of the New Zealand Peacekeeping Forces who were temporarily stationed there. The roof of this sprawling building was all gone (Bishop Belo said that they used it to build houses for the militias across the border). Not one bed, cupboard, and other furnishing was spared. All the equipment, without exception was taken (operating room tables, ceiling lamps, X-ray apparatus, laboratory equipment, computers, etc). Not a piece of linen was left. The hospital, the nurse’s quarters, the sisters’ convent were as barren as the Sahara. And, they managed to burn the medical records room, the central supply room, and pharmacy storeroom. According to our former neighbors who have returned from across the border, the two doctors who looted our hospital medicines are now using them for their patients there for a good price. For almost three years, our Sisters worked hard to be able to construct a hospital for the East Timorese people. The building was constructed from Generalate funds, while most of the equipment and furnishings were donated by the Australian, British, Canadian, and Vatican embassies in Indonesia as well as from funding agencies at home and abroad. It must have taken only three days for the soldiers and militias to bring the hospital to its present destruction.

As refugees returned from the other side of the border, problems of beating and mauling of returning ex-militias have been reported. These unfortunate incidents were blown out of proportions by hard-core militias who remain in West Timor and use them to disseminate false information about the situation in independent East Timor. This way, they discouraged other refugees who liked to return. We are told that up to the present, there are still about eighty to one-hundred thousand refugees in exile in refugee camps across the border. In an effort to correct this situation the UNHCR has organized meetings between the repatriated refugees and those still across the border. During these meetings, the two groups share information about the situation on either side of the border. Many a refugee had been helped through these meetings. Our Sisters in Suai are involved in these meetings. Together with UNHCR personnel, they act as interpreters and liason between the two groups.

Timor is now an independent country. It is our hope that it will, in due time, take its place among free and peace-loving nations. In the meantime, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) is the governing authority in the country. Together with a National Consultative Council NCC composed of 11 East Timorese, 3 foreign UN representatives, and 1 Church official. It will prepare the East Timorese towards an indigenous government and to full independence in about two to three years. The stress is on capacity building and empowerment towards the East Timorese. The UNTAET personnel is a pot pourri  of nationalities from the five continents: Australians, new Zealanders and Fijians, Americans, Canadians, and Brazilians, Portuguese, British, and French, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, Thais, Filipinos, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Ghanians, Mozambiquer’s, and South Africans, Russians, Serbians,  and Croates, to mention only a few. Furthermore, there are more than 100 foreign and local non-government organizations (NGO) operating here to help in the reconstruction and development of the country. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Parliamentarians, Ambassadors, Military Generals, Generals of Congregations, internationally famous   philanthrophists, and others have come and gone pledging and promising support. While some have responded generously and quickly, it is sad to say that not a few remain empty pledges and promises.

But the three-pronged strategy of UNTAET namely: security, reconstruction, and development seems to be moving rather slowly. While the Peacekeeping Forces have, in general secured the territory; UNHCR has repatriated about 150,000 refugees from Indonesia; most of the school children are back to school to follow lessons in English and Portuguese sometimes classes held in the open, under the trees and eighty-five percent of the country was electricity the reconstruction and development phases seems to be lagging behind. While restaurants and shops (mostly catering to UN personal) have much roomed along the dusty streets of Dili, there is scarcity of goods and money in the out-lying areas as in Suai. The cost of basic needs like rice, sugar, cooking oil and the like have doubled or even trebled. Many local people are unemployed some work for a living by helping to clear debris, clean streets and surroundings in exchange for rice. The World Food Program and other NGOs have done their utmost to help but have not met the people’s needs. There is a lack of medical supplies and health services. People in the villages are rediscovering traditional medicine.

But the paschal experience of East Timor is not a continuous way of the cross. Glimpses of strong faith, hope, love, compassion, joy, peace and reconciliation is radiated along the way. Our Sisters in Australia, I would like to mention in a special way, Sr. Miriam da Luz, who went out of her way and did everything, contacting people as far as Hong Kong and Manila, to facilitate a safe passage for us to Darwin and on to Sydney. The Sisters of Sydney were truly caring and concerned. Their Paulinian spirit, love, and hospitality helped us to relax tense mind and muscles. Even as we returned to Dili, their concern continues.
While living with the East Timorese refugees at the Safe Haven, East Hills, Australia, the Josephite Sister were like guardian angels to us and to the refugees. Their convent was open all day and a big part of the night to give service to the refugees. Their convent was open all day and a bug part of the night to give service to the refugees. They also set up computer classes trauma counseling, a medical clinic, a day-care center, handicraft and sewing classes for women, etc. to serve the refugees. All these had given hope, joy and healing to many a traumatized refugees. They also helped to support some livelihood programs for the women o Suai-including victims of rape.

And what shall we say of the officers and members of the Royal Australian Air Force who not only risked their lives to bring security to East Timor; who not only gave a cup of water to thirsty but who also shaved off and auctioned off their beautiful hair and strong mustache to raise funds to provide an electric generator for our Sisters’ house and clinic in Suai? Once or twice each week, they also come to visit two grandmother nuns, not for Bible classes or spiritual direction but to do what the Bible says: “give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, comfort the sick, and instruct the ignorant”. They drop in to bring relief goods: food, clothing, school and medical supplies, toys, cooking utensils, toiletries and the like. These goods are sorted, packed, and sent to villages out-lying villages/parishes near to border with West Timor to many a poor refugee who had returned from “exile” in Indonesian Timor. They also give happiness and gladness to the many poor children in our neighborhood with their caring attitude. And of course, the goodies, school supplies and toys they bring do not only make the hearts and stomachs of these kids dance for joy, they also meet and befriend real, concerned soldiers.

And how can we forget our own Sr. Bernardita Guhit whose sincere compassion and concern for the plight of East Timorese students in Jakarta is loved and appreciated by them. Working with Sr. Inoue, a Japanese Sister of the Sacred whose compassion is no less intense, they have helped repatriate many student refugees, arranged scholarships for deserving youth, and helping at livelihood projects especially for women in the Suai area. The enormous amount of food, clothing, medicines, school supplies, vehicles, agricultural and carpentry tools are truly invaluable help for the people.

And then, we have the many Indonesian priests, sisters, and lay people, who continue to commit themselves to the welfare of the East Timorese. They ply the border between Indonesia and East Timor in order to repatriate refugees, reunited long-separated families and kin, to provide food, clothing, materials for building simple shelters, medicines, etc. all at the risk of inciting the ire of hard-core militias along the border.

At this point a short story comes to mind: “In the middle of a town in southern India stands a gigantic tree. No one knows how old it is. The tree is called Ammamaram, i.e., the mother tree. It has a cavity large enough for a man to sit in. Many years ago a wise old man lived in this tree cavity. He ate the fruits of the tree and used its bark as his clothing. After he died they found the following lines on the bark that he had worn:

“A tree done not itself eat of this own fruits.
A river does not drink its own water.
A cloud does not rain for its own use.
The gifts of the good are used to serve the needs of others”

The above are just a few of the many glimpses of joy along East Timor’s path towards “Easter” - the joy, the freedom of the children of God. We regret not to be able to mention here, all those who have supported our people, never giving in to “compassion fatigue”.

SPC East Timor looks to the future will hope in its new commitments to the people of East Timor. With the coming of new sisters: Sr. Annette de Marie Nadala, Sr. Victoria Santiago, and Sr. Constancia, a fixed clinic, a mobile cline, and pastoral work have already started in Suai. In Dili, Sr. Bernadette Velayo, Sr. Alma Marie Cantoma and I will help in the administration of the new Major Seminary of the Diocese of Dili and Bacau and to continue to assist at the Centre of Peace and Development with its new structure, vision, and function. In simplicity, humility, and audacity we will continue to give ourselves to God for the good of the Church, for the service, the reconciliation, and healing of the people of East Timore, Nay we ask your support in the work entrusted to us by the Church in East Timor. Whatever from it takes, it will go a long way in the arduous task of rebuilding East Timore and its staunchly Catholic people.

East Timore is a new country with a new vision. It’s people look to a culture of peace in a civil society. The call of the hour is for conversion, reconciliation, healing and hope. As Bishop Belo states: “East Timore is the property of all people of goodwill- for the peaceful, just, democratic, and prosperous future of the territory. It belongs not only to the pro independence groups but also to those who favor integration with Indonesia. Let us forgive and accept each other as brothers and sisters toward to the future of East Timor.”

Perhaps, we and our people have yet to pass through a thousand crises and deaths to come to the resurrection: true freedom. The Lord is journeying with us.  We pray to Him:

“Everyday I need you, Lord, but this day especially.
I need some extra strength to face whatever is to be.
This day more than any day, I need to feel You near
to fortify my courage and to overcome my fear.
By myself I cannot meet the challenge of the hour.
There are times when human creatures need a higher power
to help them bear what must be borne.
And so, dear Lord, I pray -
                        hold on to my trembling hand and be with me today”

Sr. Marie Carmen Pangillian
Dili, East Timor 2002
New SPC  Juniorate Building

It is a wish, a desire, come true, and a prayer answered.   With Mother Myriam and Council who were at the helm of the construction of the SPC Juniorate Building, Sr. Marie Bibianne and the Regional Council was able to have the Juniorate Formation House blessed and inaugurated for the Timorese Sisters last June 29, 2012.   This is the first Juniorate House (among the Religious Congregation) here in Timor Leste.

The building is just at the back of the Regional House, Dili.  A building of two floors and a roof garden.  The first floor consists of a classroom, conference room, kitchenette, office of the Junior Mistress and a guest room.  The Second floor is the 12 individual rooms of the Sisters with a prayer room.

Turiscai Mission House

Turiscai sounds “tourist sky”.  Everybody  thinks it is like that and really it is somehow.  It is a tourist place  on top of  a mountain... “ a Levesville within a mission.”

The opening  of a mission house in Turiscai is  a response to the long time request of the Bishop of Dili, H.E. Mons. Alberto Ricardo da Silva since 2007.  This is a village of 7,900 inhabitants, 1,500 families, with eleven scattered villages all over the mountain.  It is more than 300 kilometers away from  Dili City, through rugged, narrow, winding, stony and mountainous terrain; often times
inaccessible during rainy days.

The village is 700 meters above sea level and the place is cool all year round.  An utter lack of basic necessities, malnuitrition, illiteracy, in one word poverty in all its forms, shapes and color characterizes the place and the people. Electric power is on and off, communication through mobile phone is possible but the signal is erratic.

Several religious women congregations were invited by the Diocese to open a house in Turiscai….they came to see but faltered because of the difficult situation and deprivation in the place.  We, as gleaners, responded to the invitation in spite of these difficulties…

It takes 5  hours or more with the kind of road described above,   to reach the  place by car,  and to reach to another village takes 3 to 4 hours  using the mountain trail.  If lucky enough, the sisters and others can hitch ride in cargo trucks that transport food supplies to the people.  Whoever has enough food supplies shares.

The Sisters do not yet have any transport of their own, so they have to be always on the alert to watch who is going to the city; either the cargo truck that brings the food to be sold in the city  or the pick up of the Parish Priest.   Sometimes the Sisters would also resort  riding in a motor cycle to reach Maubisse where there are transportations for Dili.   Periodically  as the need arises the Sisters are invited to come to Dili for special occasions and meetings and for their community and apostolic needs like: food supplies, medicines,  equipments, etc.

Now, are you able to visualize this “tourist sky”?
Assigned there are: Sister Alma Cantorna, the local superior who teaches in the parish school and also does pastoral work as well;  Sister Mary Cardoso, who does the health care apostolic ministry to the sick poor and Sister Liberita (newly professed sister)  who is doing the pastoral work in the Parish.  The sisters take turns to accompany the team of the Parish Priest when they go to the different villages to celebrate mass and give sacraments.  The people in the community warmly welcomes the Sisters and are proud to have the presence of the Sisters in TURISCAI.
District Chapter
Visit of Mother General
In English