Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou – Part One
Rarely are we privileged enough to meet at true hero, a person whose positive influence is evident in the world and someone who inspires you to take up the challenge of social justice. I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to know East Timor’s Sister Lourdes. I first met her in 1999 when she was instrumental in coordinating reconciliation between pro Indonesia militia groups and pro Independence East Timorese. Father George, Kathy Gee and I visited her in Timor last year and were fortunate enough to see her again recently with Mark Ferguson and Jane Mulroney of Pittwater Council. Sister Lourdes is an invaluable source of advice in the development of our relationship with the village of Soibada. Over the next few weeks I will share some of her remarkable story with you.
Sister Lourdes, or Mana Lou as she is affectionately known, is a radical Catholic nun and a hero of East Timor’s revolution. She is a charismatic dynamo who is regularly consulted by the political leadership for advice. She is a highly respected leader of society – a unique position for a woman in traditional Timor. She’s been called the Mother Theresa of East Timor. Yet she has also been likened to Joan of Arc. She did not taken up arms for a military fight but is a leader in a nonviolent struggle to assist the Timorese to regain a sense of their own dignity and identity.
When Sister Lourdes, then known as Maria Lourdes Martins Cruz, was 11 years old the Indonesians invaded East Timor. This was only 9 days after Portugal had given the tiny nation independence. During the next 24 years of military occupation over 200,000 East Timorese, almost a third of the population lost their lives.
One of seven children, four girls and three boys, the young Maria came from a reasonably well off family. Her parents owned a coffee plantation in Dare in the hills outside Dili. It is a beautiful place with magnificent views down to Dili Harbour and Christo Rei. All the children went to school until it was closed by the Indonesians. Maria found refuge in the local church and accompanied the parish priest on his rounds. As a child she walked the mountain paths to local villages. She witnessed the deprivation and poverty experienced by the majority of the East Timorese. She became aware of her own ability to assist, sustain and educate them.
She impressed the local Bishop, and he encouraged her to continue her studies. She became a novice with the Canossian Daughters of Charity. However, she felt dislocated from her true calling of assisting the poor whilst living in the convent. Life there was too different from that of ordinary people. She also felt that the Church’s hierarchical structure restricted the potential of women. In 1985 she went to study theology at a Jesuit Institute on Java, Indonesia. On her return home Sister Lourdes established her own religious order which she called “Brothers and Sisters in Christ” and began to act on her ideas. She saw her mission as “preparing the ground for a new Timor”. The purpose of her order is to work alongside the poor, demonstrating that the
On Her family’s coffee estate Sister Lourdes built a training institute to educate girls, two orphanages, boarding houses and a home for the sick. Work is shared equally and the community is completely self sufficient. They raise livestock and grow crops, even flowers to sell at the market. This model of equality and self-sufficiency is what Mana Lou advocates for Timor as a whole. The young people who have joined her community do not wear religious habit and they live in the same simplicity as local people.
In a country still traumatized by the past Sister Lourdes wants people to take control of their own situation. She said, “If we see the roads need to be fixed we can’t just stand there and look at it and expect others to fix it. If farms need to be worked then we go and help people to do that. We want to be an example with the work that we’re doing. Not by just teaching or talking, but by putting our words into action. “To take the new Timor forward.” She is adamant that any change in Timor will have to be initiated from within, using the resources available to create sustainable improvements, rather than superficial solutions imposed from outside.
In this process of education for liberation, she has said, “Our arms are peace, love, justice, truth, freedom, forgiveness, unity and solidarity.”
In 1997 she was a recipient of Pax Christi’s International Peace Prize. In December 2009 she was awarded the Sergio Vieira De Mello Human Rights Award for promoting social, economic and cultural rights by President Jose Ramos-Horta.