Sister Lourdes – Part Two


During the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste the Catholic Church became “the people’s church”. To be Catholic became a symbol of Timorese identity. Priests and Nuns spoke out about human rights abuses. They risked their own lives. The Timorese lost their own identity, their indigenous culture and their spirituality during this time.


Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou, is now 48 years old. A dynamic, vocal and independent-minded woman, she provides a new model of religious leadership and service for the Church. She has dedicated her life to “changing the plight of the poor by working on the roots of the problems”. Sister Lourdes feels that God asked her to look after the “underdogs”. Now her focus is on empowering the poor to become truly "independent" by developing cottage industries, handicrafts, and agriculture, as well as spiritual growth. One of her goals is to preserve local languages and culture. She collects traditional music, and is an expert in traditional food and medicine. In a demonstration of Christ's love she reaches out to the areas other groups do not venture. She gathers communities in the search for solidarity, faith and resource maximization. She has established more than 10 houses across the country, and health clinics and a hospice for tuberculosis patients and one for children with disabilities.


Sister Lourdes considers that the children are the real future of East Timor. She believes Timor Leste needs more than education to overcome its challenges. Its people need to be prepared to do hard work and take the initiative. She is concerned that some Timorese people live with an “occupation mentality”. That is, they are so used to not being in control of their own lives and society, and then becoming the recipients of charity, that they do not have the drive to attempt to rectify the situation for themselves. This has resulted in a noticeable lack of leadership skills. Another goal is to build leadership among the youth. Her bigger vision is a self-sufficient country that does not rely on charity. Her crusade to help the poor has put her at odds with her country’s invaders, her church and at times even her own people. Although it has the official blessing of the Bishop, the Institute receives no official funding from the Catholic Church. It relies on income generated from crops grown, cottage industry and any donations received.

The structure of her “Institute”, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, is unique. There is no rank and little bureaucracy. Sister Lourdes personally oversees the day to day management with the assistant of a secretary. She welcomes people of any denomination, who share her vision to join the community. However, if they are Catholic and are called by God they are eligible to become a “member”. This entails a commitment of five years of training. The members are educated to be a source of inspiration to the people. They are trained intellectually and in hygiene, social and economic skills, cultural activities and spiritual formation. They undertake outreach work with the poor in villages across Timor Leste. After completing this training they take holy vows, including one of chastity. The latter is to ensure that they can be “mother, father, brother, sister or child to anyone of God’s people.”


Sister Lourdes is trying to spread the work they do at Dare into the most remote and poorest villagers of East Timor. She even has dreams of taking her work to other poverty stricken countries. She is not limiting her scope to Timor alone. She considers it her responsibility to share her faith, to educate, and to train. She hopes that one day it will be “like a candle that lights up and illuminates the land not only for the church in Timor but for the world”. When we spoke with her about her plans she even included work in Australian Indigenous communities and work in Africa amongst her future goals.

Sister Lourdes’ father was happy for her to spend her time with the priests when she was young so that she could develop a stronger spirituality. This association also provided a safe haven for her and she was sent to the convent for protection. Young girls were often kidnapped during this time. It was then expected that she would become a nun. Although she left the Convent her faith was strong and she knew her true calling was to work “hands on” amongst the poor.


For a time, Religious were considered untouchable and “bullet-proof”. This changed dramatically in September, 1999, during the violence following the vote for independence. Refugees sheltering in churches, and the nuns and priests protecting them, were brutally massacred. Sister Lourdes barely escaped with her life as the military and their militias killed two of the younger women she worked with.


Thousands of people fled the cities to hide in the mountains and countryside. While the country burned the farm at Dare became a sanctuary for children and the dispossessed. Sister Lourdes and the candidates of her institute cared for at least 15,000 people. She fed them, clothed them, card for the sick. Her love for the children gave them hope, and the chance for a new life. Amidst the disaster that was Timor Leste in 1999 she made time to play, sing and just “be” with the children. She showed them the Grace of God in their shattered lives. In September 1999 I visited Sister Lourdes and the children at Dare many times. I delivered many packages sent from you here in Pittwater. There was food, clothing for the children, hand knitted teddies and other toys. To see the joy on the orphans’ faces as Sister Lourdes taught them to use a skipping rope, or play with a toy, was evidence of the impact of such small things in their lives. For a moment they were distracted from the atrocities they had witnessed.


Mana Lou believes that her ability to care for these people was a miracle from God. There was no clean water and very little food. Yet somehow she always managed to scrape together enough to get by.


The Institute has developed tremendously since that time. There is now guest accommodation in Dare for up to forty people. Designed and built by Sister Lourdes and her members, at $20 US a day, it is a perfect place for retreats and courses. With our assistance Sister Lourdes may be able to extend her outreach programs to the poor in Soibada. There is now guest accommodation in Dare for up to forty people. Designed and built by Sister Lourdes and her members, at $20 US a day, it is a perfect place for retreats and courses. With our assistance Sister Lourdes may be able to extend her outreach programs to the poor in Soibada.


Tetum Word of the Week


Xapeau     hat 

Timor Leste Facts

President Jose Ramos Horta said; "The Church is a part of our history, the only one that can claim hundreds of years of experience but beyond that, it is the Church that provides the growth of Timorese identity, the Church has contributed enormously to education, health and culture over the years."

There are three Diocese in Timor Leste;

  • Baucau,
  • Dili
  • Maliana

There are three Cathedrals;

  • St. Anthony’s Cathedral, Baucau
  • Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Díli
  • Sacred Heart Cathedral, Maliana