East Timor Mission: St Mary's spirit in action


Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission
The work of St Mary of the Cross in action...(Back, from left) Sr Rosita Kiss RSJ, Sr Susan Connelly RSJ, Sr Irene Macinante RSJ, Rose Lukey, and Janet Borg; (front, from left): Noreen Nicoara, Sr Josephine Mitchell RSJ, and Luisa Marques.

By Virginia Knight

When a young Timorese man was able to stand in St Peter's Square for Mary MacKillop's Canonisation thanks to the help of the Sisters of St Joseph, it showed the true spirt of Australia's first Saint in action.

The young man, Vital - one of six Timorese sponsored by the Sisters to attend the Canonsation - had learnt to read and write through a literacy project run by Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission, based in St Marys in the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta. Vital now works for the project as a driver.

"Vital burst into tears when he learnt he had been chosen to go to Rome," said Director of the Centre, Sr Josephine Mitchell RSJ.  “And if St Mary MacKillop would have wanted anyone there, she would want that young man.”

Since Mary MacKillop first came to the St Marys district in 1880, the Sisters of St Joseph have been a presence, living out her vision and assisting the poor and marginalised through her work of education.

Housed in what was originally built as a convent, the Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission was established 1994. It would be the Australian base for the mission of the Josephite sisters in East Timor, providing much-needed services in health and education.

The centre was established in response to an appeal from Bishop Carlos Belo, Apostolic Administrator of Dili, during a visit to Australia in 1993.

A shared journey in faith, hope and love

Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission
Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission Director Sr Josephine Mitchell RSJ (right) with Assistant Director Sr Susan Connelly RSJ.
Sr Josephine said the Sisters were doing Mary MacKillop’s work in East Timor.

“Timor is suffering the same needs as Mary first identified here in Australia. It is the poorest country in Asia and amongst the poorest in the world," Sr Josephine said. "Half the population is illiterate and 25 per cent of children still have no possibility of attending primary school."

Two Sisters are resident at the centre at St Marys in addition to several sisters and lay workers who commute each day to work on a variety of projects.

“The work is basically in East Timor, but someone once described this as the engine room,” Sr Josephine said. “We look at it as two hands – the Australian side of it and across the Timor Sea. It is a shared journey in faith, hope and love between two countries.”

There is only one sister permanently on the ground in East Timor. Sr Julian Langton RSJ is the Coordinator of Mission and she is supported by 13 young women and men aged between 20 and 35 who are trained as teachers, administrators and support staff.

The mission is to respect the dignity of the East Timorese and help them to grow in their freedom; to educate, encourage and build confidence. It is about providing resources and setting the foundations of self sufficiency by training teachers to meet the country’s education needs.

The work centres on equipping teachers to be able to provide basic education in the primary areas (with a very strong emphasis on literacy) through an ongoing ‘train the trainers’ program.

These teachers will, in turn, train others, creating a flow-on effect. They also offer inservicing for those teachers already working in 80 primary and 30 pre- schools, concentrating on appropriate methodology and knowledge and improving facilities.

Working with linguist Sr Tess Ward OLSH and many local people, the Sisters have devised the first literacy program in Tetun, the connecting language of the nation.

The program is used throughout Catholic schools in the Diocese from Kindergarten to Year 6 and nationally in 800 schools, both Catholic and government, for the Year 1 curriculum.

When the Sisters began their involvement in East Timor there were virtually no books.

“We would meet children who had never held a book, never seen a book,” Sr Josephine said.

The St Marys centre produces colourful books in Tetun and instructs the local teachers in how to use these resources in their classrooms. Sr Josephine said that for many East Timorese, adult and children, this was the first time they had seen their own language and culture contained in a book and that observing their reactions was like watching a candle lighting up.

Health is an important element of the Sisters’ work with half those children aged under five being chronically malnourished. “How do you educate sick and hungry children to read and write?” Sr Josephine said.

They have begun a program to combat malnutrition conducting training workshops to show the advantages of using local vegetables as dietary supplements. Sr Joan Westblade LCM has worked with the mission in the country for more than 10 years, producing resources and training community health workers in local villages.

Those Sisters who cannot remain for long periods travel to Timor regularly to assist in the training programs.

“It is a tremendously energising work,” Sr Josephine said. “Timor has a great gift for the world and they are beautiful people.

“Their democracy is only 10 years old and they are coming out of tremendous deprivation. For 25 years they have been on the Cross and they have clung to the Church as their protector. The Church is their asylum.”

The Canonisation of Mary MacKillop is hugely significant to the East Timorese people, with a celebration planned in Tetun in Dili Cathedral on 9 November.

To learn more about the work of Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission and how you can help visit: www.mmiets.org.au


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