Timor-Leste (the Democratic Republic of East Timor) comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Occusse, an exclave on the north west side of the island surrounded by Indonesian West Timor. East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 when the Portuguese withdrew and Indonesia claimed the territory for itself, ruthlessly suppressing the independence movement. After a period of devastating conflict where people suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory in 1999 and on 20 May 2002 East Timor finally achieved independence and became the first new nation of the twenty-first century.
There has been a Carmelite presence in East Timor for many years. The Hermanas de la Virgen Maria del Monte Carmelo from Orihuela in Spain established a foundation when the country was still a protectorate of Portugal and remained during the Indonesian occupation. When some young men expressed an interest in the Carmelite charism and spirituality, they went to the sisters in Fatuhada, Dili to find out more, and, with the agreement of the Indonesian Carmelite province, the sisters looked after them as pre-postulants whilst they discerned their vocations.
In 1999 the Indonesian Carmelites sent two friars to look after these candidates and to minister in Dili. In 2001, the Carmelite Australian province accepted responsibility for the Carmelite presence in Timor Leste and for the parish of Zumalai mission in the south-west coast of the country. On 15th August 2016, the province now known as ‘The Carmelites of Australia and Timor-Leste’ celebrated 15 years of this mission.
An Australian Lay Carmelite who visited the region just after independence wrote: “I knew very little about the atrocities they had endured and was unprepared for that first visit – for the overwhelming emotions I experienced – seeing the destruction and hearing the stories of persecution, carnage and terror they had faced. The stories and locations of the violence began in Dili, but as we were guided and transported by the Carmelite friars over the mountainous terrain for a six hour journey to Zumalai, I began to feel their pain. I witnessed the destruction in each of the districts we passed through. Their country had been occupied for over three hundred years – the disempowerment, created by hunger, poverty and death of thousands of their people, was a testament to their courage and endurance ….. Names and news items we had all seen on television became a reality as our group stopped at various places of massacre and terror following the majority vote to claim independence in 1999 …. As Australians, a sense of shame and guilt was developing in each of us as we gazed on their sad, stricken and traumatised faces and we wondered how we could have allowed our neighbour to suffer in this way, only 686 km from our own shores”. This distance represents a one hour flight to the capital of East Timor, Dili, from Darwin, in Australia.
- East Timor is the poorest country in south east Asia
- Population: 1.2 million (of whom about 95% are Catholic)
- Life expectancy is 67 years (only 3.6% of the population are 65 )
- One in seven children die before the age of 5
- 80% of people are unemployed
- Only 15% of people have access to clean water
- About 46% of people have never had any schooling
- The mortality rate is 200 times higher than in Australia
The Carmelites operate in two main areas – in Dili, the capital and Hera, which is on the north of the island, and the parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Zumalai, in the mountainous region on the south west coast. The parish comprises 35 villages with a population of around 16,000.
Communities in Dili
In Fatuhada Dili, the Mission Centre and Pre-Novitiate house (Blessed Titus Brandsma House) provides accommodation for six male high school students from Zumalai as well as the pre-novices. There are few secondary schools in East Timor, and this accommodation enables at least some students to complete a secondary education. The house, which was opened in July 2005, also serves as the main administration centre for the Carmelites in the country and as a “transit house” for Carmelites and other visitors travelling on to Zumalai.
The two year pre-Novitiate is an introduction to Carmelite life and formation. In addition to their studies in English, Portuguese, and an introduction to scripture and theology, the young men in the Pre-Novitiate undertake ministries within the community. These are many and varied: for example, leading the liturgy in the local parish once a month, offering pastoral care to those in prison or hospital, establishing and supporting a youth outreach programme “Children in Carmel” which offers reading skills, English lessons, music and sport.
The Santo Elias Novitiate in Hera was built in 2007 with twenty rooms for novices and five rooms for professed Carmelites. There is also a classroom, a library and a chapel large enough for the local community to attend Mass on Sunday and Feast Days. During their Novitiate, the Novices learn more about the Carmelite Order and its charism and try to grow in a life of prayerful union with God.
Prior to 2008, the young men from East Timor wishing to study for the priesthood attended a seminary in Flores, Indonesia. Although Portuguese had always been the official language of the country, at this point it also became the language of education. It was therefore important for those training for the priesthood to undertake studies in their own country and they now study at the Diocesan seminary in Fatumeta. The Australian Province therefore undertook to build accommodation for the Carmelite seminarians next to the Novitiate house in order to save on costs. The Saint Nuno student house, providing accommodation for twelve men and two rooms for formators, was blessed and opened in May 2010 by the Prior General Fr Fernando Millan Romeral. Additional funding for the project came from the US, Irish and British provinces as well as the Society of the Little Flower.
In 2015 two more young men were ordained, bringing the total to eight ordained East Timorese Carmelites. Fr Roque Solares Da Cruz and Fr Carlito Da Silva were ordained in Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Dili on 30th January. Following their ordinations, they travelled home to celebrate Mass in their own villages, Letefoho and Besilau respectively. Both wore the traditional dress of their villages and were escorted by a large procession of villagers, Carmelites, family and friends. Fr Roque is now stationed in Hera, helping with Masses in the community, neighbouring convents and rural parishes as well as teaching the novices Lectio Divina. Fr Carlito is assistant formator for the Pre-Novitiate House in Fatuhada.
Covering the costs of the Carmelite Formation Programme across two countries is a costly venture for the Carmelites of Australia and East Timor. Funds are raised via donations from individual donors, a major gifts programme, soliciting community groups and applying to Trusts and Foundations. Even with all of these measures in place there is a large deficit as this is the most costly of all the programme areas.
The main compound in Zumalai town now comprises the parish church, houses for the Carmelites, Zumalai primary school and high school with 220 students and a Boarding House for boys accommodating 13 students. There is also second primary school in Raimea, with 250 students in another small village in the Zumalai region. The Carmelites see education as growing need for teenagers and young adults in Zumalai, who desperately want to continue their education beyond high school. Without a good education their dreams of contributing to their community would never be realised, as their families have little money or ways to help.
The Education = Freedom & Student Scholarships programmes help these young people to break the cycle of poverty by not only teaching them to read and write, but more importantly by giving them a gateway to their dreams of becoming something. Today there are 24 students in Zumalai and Hera who through the Scholarship Program are able to go to school, lean a trade or attend university. They are well on their way to fulfilling their dreams and realising their potential through the gift of an education.
Fundraising efforts in Australia have resulted in the funding of these programmes through the generosity of groups and individuals across Australia Some funds have been used to cover scholarships costs such as tuition, computers, books, pens and uniforms as well as travel to and from school. The scholarships enable young people to complete secondary education or become qualified in teaching, health care, technology and mechanics. Other funds have assisted with building
of additional classrooms in the school(s), building the boarding house and providing resources for the students and purchasing teaching supplies. So much more still needs to be achieved. Continued support in this area will mean that more children and young adults can receive the gift of an education.
Strong links with parishes and schools in Australia have assisted the work of the Carmelites in East Timor to go from strength to strength. Students at Whitefriars College in Melbourne have fundraised since 2003 for a variety of projects including the water and electricity projects. A number of the students have also visited the Carmelites in Dili and Zumalai, through a school immersion programme, assisting with teaching in the school or helping the postulants and novices with their English. In 2015, Kate Swinfield from the Faversham parish in England volunteered to teach English to the Carmelite students in Hera as well as spending time with the pre-novices in Fatuhada.
For more information about the great range of work undertaken by the Carmelites in East Timor, or to make a donation please go to www.carmelites.org.au. You can email directly at email@example.com. All gifts to support either the Carmelite Formation programme or the development work in East Timor are gratefully received. The Society of the Little Flower also supports the work undertaken in East Timor.