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Dennis M. LinehanFebruary 24, 2003

Last summer I traveled to the other end of the globe and met a modern heroine, described by a friend as “our four-foot terrorist.” Maryknoll Sister Nora Maulawin earned that description during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, when, under regular surveillance, she was followed, interrogated and had her mail opened. The occupiers were on to something. Sister Nora is one of the most dangerous people I have ever met. Her life and her work are so imbued with Gospel values that she would frighten any dictator, major or petty.


I met her at Aileu, south of Dili, East Timor’s coastal capital. There the Maryknoll sisters run a high school, social service center, medical clinic, religious instruction program and even operate a chicken farm in cooperation with the local youth group. This seems ordinary enough, until one looks around and sees the devastation in which they work.

In September 1999, as the Indonesian forces withdrew from East Timor, they and their local militias went on a reign of terror. Murder, looting, burning and destruction were the order of the day. This was not a series of random acts of violence. The destruction was so purposeful and systematic that 80 percent of the structures in the country were damaged or destroyed. Particular attention was given to any building that could be useful in the rebuilding of society—schools, hospitals, virtually all public buildings—fell in flames. The Maryknoll sisters were on the last Australian Hercules plane to fly out during the evacuation. The bishop of Dili also had to flee to Australia, and the bishop of Baucau took to the mountains with his people, but only after suffering stab wounds in a confrontation with the militias. Numerous sisters, brothers and priests were killed during this period. In early February the U.N. Special Crimes Unit indicted 32 people, including 15 Indonesian soldiers and the head of the pro-Indonesian militia groups, for torturing and killing East Timorese in 1999.

Though the aura of death could easily linger over such a landscape, the mood in Aileu was remarkably upbeat, in large measure because of the work of the Maryknoll sisters. Sister Susan Gubbins, the director of social services, suffered a stroke three years ago, but her energy is contagious. Sister Dorothy McGowan runs the health clinic with Dr. Colette Livermore, one of only 50 physicians in a population of 850,000. Sister Eileen Brady and Sister Teresa Hougnon are teacher and principal in the parish high school. All of these projects are supported by Catholic Relief Services, the practical outreach arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

From 1991 to 1999 the sisters had gradually built up all of these projects, but when they were able to return in 2000, they found everything destroyed except the spirit of the people. They have spent the last two years gradually rebuilding as supplies became available. The social service center is functioning again; the school is open—literally open: no windows, no doors—with dedicated teachers. The high school seniors range in age from 18 to 23. Their relatively advanced age is explained by the delays due to civil disruptions, when all formal education was impossible.

The day I was with the students, they were assembled to discuss peace-building: “How do we, here and now, work to promote peace?” Sister Teresa asked an assembly of the oldest classes in Tetum, the local language, which she learned in order to equip herself for the position of principal. The themes that emerged were the same ones stressed by Sister Nora in her work with the adults of the town: co-operation, dialogue, nurturing. The students proposed a program of mentoring, which assigns entering students to older student guides to lead them through their first days in school. From the discussion groups came a list of activities in which mentors and new students could work for the school. All this was accomplished in a room with no electricity, bare tables and reclaimed chairs.

Visiting Aileu at the same time was the C.R.S. country director for East Timor, Jamieson Davies, a Georgetown University graduate, who previously worked in Angola. She speaks Portuguese, an invaluable tool in a country where it was a common language until the Indonesian invasion of 1975. Sister Nora took us to see the chicken farm, with its wood-frame chicken barn, chicken coops, feeding bins and feed storage silos. It looked flourishing to me, but Sister Nora expressed regret that they had not done better. “Some of the chickens died, some were stolen....” Then with a wink she added: “but we know the real reason for all of this”: work, co-operation, hope, life amid what could be despair born of apathy. One of the reasons C.R.S. is so effective in the developing world is that it focuses on selected projects, like this one, with limited but achievable goals. It co-operates with the local people by providing aid and organization. The combination of C.R.S. and Maryknoll has made and will continue to make a real difference in Aileu as it rebuilds itself, materially and spiritually.

Another focused effort of C.R.S. is support for the Marist teacher-training project. Installed in the former C.R.S. headquarters building in Baucau, where the staff spent several days holed up during the siege of the town by the militias in 1999, the facilities consist of educational laboratories and a classroom. The relatively small space was crowded with trainee teachers, catechists and volunteer mentors, many of whom had come from Australia during their own vacation. All technologies were in use, from cellophane and construction-paper posters to teach the Lord’s Prayer to a bank of hand-me-down computers gathered together by benefactors. On display were some of the first new textbooks, written in the local languages and prepared with the cooperation of the center.

When we left the center, we went to a local grade school, just in time to catch a class in session. The building was in much the same condition as the high school in Aileu. Posters of St. Dominic Savio, St. John Bosco and Our Lady of Fatima were the only decorations, devotional testimony to the special work of Salesian men and women over decades. In a country where 93 percent of the people are Catholic, who are independent for the first time, this seemed quite natural. Catholicism is a part of the national heritage for free East Timorese, and it remains visible.

Two media projects supported by C.R.S. are likely to have as great an impact as the rebuilding of the medical and educational infrastructure. The first is the Catholic radio station, Radio Timor Kmanek, still in its infancy but spectacularly situated on a mountainside overlooking the sea. A second undertaking supports a free press for the country by helping Suara Timor Lorosae (The Voice of East Timor), one of Timor’s major newspapers. The publisher, Salvador Ximenes Soares, showed us his offices and printing plant, as well as the smashed and burned presses that are still on site. Alongside them are the new computer terminals used to prepare the paper for publication.

During my one Sunday in East Timor, we attended the English Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Dili, which had been totally refurbished. Most churches in the country were destroyed or damaged. The congregation was a good mix of locals and expatriates, most of whom were associated with nongovernmental relief organizations or the United Nations. My young companions from C.R.S. were startled to see guns in church. A large contingent of Portuguese and Philippine soldiers, who make up the peacekeeping force, were in attendance in uniform and heavily armed. I didn’t give it a second thought, remembering the police on duty back home who slip into church on holy days.

Following Mass, we drove to the other end of Dili, almost into the surrounding mountains, to the Jesuit house. There we were welcomed by Rudi Hoffmann, S.J., originally from Zurich. He worked for years in Indonesia before East Timorese independence. He suffered a stroke three years ago; and during his year of recovery in Switzerland, he set about the task of learning Portuguese, so that he could work in East Timor. He took us to the memorial garden next to the house to visit the graves of Father Tarcisius Dewanto and Father Karl Albrecht, who were brutally murdered during the violence in September 1999. One was a young Indonesian, the other an older German, lying in death side by side as a testimony to the universality of faith and courage.

Faith and courage are the hallmarks of both bishops we met. Dom Carlos Felipe Ximenez Belo, a Salesian, served as apostolic administrator of Dili. During the occupation he was a rallying figure for independence, leading his people in the way of peace despite the violence that surrounded them. He spent an early morning with us, speaking mostly of the enduring faith of the people and the genuine desire for reconciliation among former enemies. The simple room in which we met was new, as was the whole house. Bishop Belo, too, had been burned out by the militias. There was no sign in the room of his Nobel Peace Prize. Since our visit, Dom Carlos has retired, hoping to recover his health after years of struggle and tension.

Bishop Belo’s successor is Dom Basilio do Nascimento, who when we met him was apostolic administrator of Baucau, the second town in East Timor. His home also had been burned down. He opened the door of his small house himself and moved some boxes of catechetical books to make room for us to sit down. We were with him in the late afternoon, but he planned to deliver the books to some parishes even later. One of his passions is providing for the continuing formation of the laity and the clergy. He explained the obvious—not only were buildings burned, so were all the books, even the small private libraries collected by the priests. Nothing was left; everything had to be replaced. He expressed gratitude for all that the international community has done for the country and the church and singled out Portugal and Brazil as churches that were actively engaged in the educational and spiritual rebuilding effort. And he did not mean construction. He spoke of seminary professors who have come from abroad at their own expense to help cultivate the faith.

When asked about eventual reconciliation between enemies, Dom Basilio was optimistic. “You can’t live forever with a broken heart. There has to be forgiveness; otherwise life cannot go on.” In a spirit like that of South Africa, truth and reconciliation are the key to progress, he said. And the truth is painful. Only slowly are the former militia members coming back to their villages. Only slowly can atrocities be forgiven. But at no time during my entire visit to the country did I hear an expression of hatred; at no time did I hear a call for revenge. This amazed me, but Dom Basilio attributed it to the spirit of the Timorese people. The faith was deeply implanted at the parish level and had been nurtured by lay leaders for centuries, since at no time was there a sufficient number of clergy. The challenge for the moment is to recover that spirit and make it universal.

To that end, C.R.S. has engaged in a program of peace-building in the communities with local leaders being trained to facilitate the effort. Led by Jake Hershman, who came to East Timor after working for C.R.S. in Macedonia, village gatherings are being held during which memories and hopes are shared. I attended one of these and was startled to see a three-year-old boy, sitting quietly on his grandmother’s lap, holding a child-sized machete. It didn’t look all that peaceful to me, until I realized that this was, for him, just an agricultural tool—cultural dissonance, like guns in church.


This is far from the entire story of East Timor. There are pitfalls ahead for the world’s newest democracy. Set as it is next to the Timor Gap gas and oil reserves, from which it hopes to profit, it could still be a target for its larger neighbors, whether hostile or benign. The terrain is undeveloped, but it is unspoiled. The prospect of eco-tourism is real, but with that would come an inevitable price to be paid. The culture is, in many ways, already somewhat Western because of the Portuguese. But it is a Western culture not yet caught up in materialism. Economic and political recovery will come slowly, and the church has supported both.

Most important to church leaders is spiritual recovery after years of national trauma. The church, which actually grew in numbers and strength during the years of occupation, is a major force for progress. It is in no way compromised, and it contributes to the development of a new infrastructure. A Jesuit even served as interim minister of education as the new government was forming. Now Father Filomeno Jacob has been directed to begin a new university.

The rugged mountain terrain of the interior, the spectacular juxtaposition of sea and mountain with vistas over both make East Timor visually extraordinary. For natural beauty, Dili is as well placed as Rio de Janeiro and, like it, has a statue of Christ on a mountain overlooking the harbor, a gift from Indonesia to Bishop Belo in honor of his Nobel Peace Prize. Sister Nora insisted on its importance as a gift, since it was accepted. She said that it could be a real symbol of reconciliation. Those old enough to remember the Maryknoll mission magazine A Field Afar would have found in Sister Nora and her community the sense of Gospel globalization that missionaries have always represented. That same spirit is also alive in the work of the women and men of Catholic Relief Services.

East Timor is only one of many places where the mission outreach of the church in the United States has been felt. Although far away on the other side of the globe, it is a crucial mission because the nation is new and at a critical stage of development. For the first time, the people have a sense of their own identity as East Timorese. There is much recent sorrow in that identity. The gift of hope is one that we are able to give through service and witness, on a small island half a world away.

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20 years 8 months ago
Thank you for Dennis Linehan's article (Feb. 24) on the inspiring work of the Maryknoll Sisters in East Timor. Seeing what they have accomplished, with so little material capital, and despite our culture's pessimism that it could not be done, should give us all hope in these desperate times. Much good can be done, even when--perhaps especially when--all around are giving up hope. The perseverance of these good women can teach us all something about accomplishing good things, such as averting war. I am especially thankful for his description of the enthusiasm or Sister Susan Gubbins as "contagious". I hope it is also genetic--she is my aunt.

20 years 8 months ago
Thank you for Dennis Linehan's article (Feb. 24) on the inspiring work of the Maryknoll Sisters in East Timor. Seeing what they have accomplished, with so little material capital, and despite our culture's pessimism that it could not be done, should give us all hope in these desperate times. Much good can be done, even when--perhaps especially when--all around are giving up hope. The perseverance of these good women can teach us all something about accomplishing good things, such as averting war. I am especially thankful for his description of the enthusiasm or Sister Susan Gubbins as "contagious". I hope it is also genetic--she is my aunt.

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