By Paulie Stewart Jesuit Social Services Melbourne.

Photo by Paulie Stewart

For several years now numerous Australian schools have finished their year’s activities by sending students up to Timor Leste for an immersion visit.  

Leading the way are many Jesuit schools, who visit their counterparts at the Kasait Jesuit College, outside of Dili as well as explore other towns and areas of the island nation.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the COVID virus most of the planned visits for this year have had to be cancelled.

However, a group of students from St Ignatius College Geelong are determined to not let the virus stop their connection and love for the people of Timor Leste.

For the past two months students from the school have had regular Zoom chats with a little group of Nuns, the Alma Sisters, who care for many disabled and orphaned children at their complex near the Dili International School.

Photo by Paulie Stewart

I first met the Alma Sisters when asked to visit them by the then East Timorese Ambassador to Australia Mr Abel Guteress in 2008. I would be in Timor Leste working as a musical consultant on the “BALIBO” movie, about Timor Leste and its people and the death of my brother Tony and four other journalists during the 1975 Indonesian invasion.

The order set up by Dutch priests has four hundred nuns who work in Timor Leste, Indonesia and Papua catering for some three thousand children.

Along with noted East Timorese musician Gil Santos we dropped into to see the work of the Sister’s first hand. From the get go we were impressed with their thoughtfulness, love, care and respect given to the young children they looked after.

Since meeting these remarkable women and alerting people to their work, the Alma Sisters have become part of the Jesuit Family. The money raised for them in Australia going through the Jesuit Mission in Sydney.

With these funds they have purchased a van, built two classrooms extended their facilities and work into the rural districts and have become a drop-in centre for visiting Australians who wish to pay their respects.

We have helped bring the Sisters to Australia on two previous occasions to meet the students at various schools like Xavier College Melbourne, St Ignatius Adelaide, John 23rd Perth, Loyola Mt Druitt, St Ignatius Riverview Sydney, Damascus College Ballarat, Star of the Sea College Gardenvale and Sacred Heart Geelong.

Unfortunately two of the Sisters who were set to tour Australia in May as part of the JUST VOICES SPEAKERS PROGRAM run by Jesuit Social Services, had their visit cancelled because of travel regulations impacted by Covid 19.

The money that we hoped to raise from their return visit to the 12 schools would have made up a lot of their projected income for this year.

Alicia and students from St Ignatius Geelong were quick to volunteer with impromptu English lessons.

“The Zooms with the Alma Nuns have been a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with Timor Leste and Indonesia. The same joy, laughter and happiness that Jess, Hannah and I experienced in Timor Leste fills our hearts when we exchange our weekly experiences with the Alma Nuns,” she said.

Photo by Paulie Stewart

She said the Nuns were wonderful role models.

“The Alma Nuns are resilient, strong and dedicated women. They live their lives with joy, compassion, gratitude and hope. As a Jesuit Companion School, these are values that we strive to live by and so the Alma Nuns certainly inspire us in many ways,” said Alicia.

“We are very grateful for the special friendships we have made and would very much like to one day take the Alma Nuns surfing!’’, said students from the school have been visiting Timor Leste since 2011.

“Students are able to experience Timor Leste’s beautiful culture and people and learn about its important history through participating in two immersions,” she said. 

This first experience enables our students to deepen their relationships with students from the JACSA network, the Jesuits and their programs in Timor Leste and, most importantly, the people who are supported by these Jesuit and Jesuit Mission projects.

The JACSA network of schools fundraise often for Jesuit Mission in Timor Leste and this immersion is an opportunity for our students to build and develop a personal relationship with the people and communities our schools support.

The teacher said this immersion also has a strong focus on Ignatian reflection.

The evening reflections provide a unique opportunity to consistently engage with Ignatian Spirituality over a two-week period and allow the students to deeply reflect on their experiences and their relationships with God, those they have encountered and the world around them. 

Alicia said the second opportunity Saint Ignatius College offers its students to experience Timor Leste is an immersion for twenty Year 10-12 students first offered in 2015.

This immersion runs for 10 days and this immersion is another opportunity for students to deepen their relationship with the people of Timor Leste, our closest international neighbour, and learn about their culture and history. The students also had a full range of activities in Timor Leste.

The JACSA immersion is held in June and July and starts in Dili, where students learn about the history of Timor Leste before spending five days in Kasait at the Jesuit School Colégio Santo Inácio de Loiola (CSIL).

“There, our students spend time with students from CSIL by joining their classes and sharing information and experiences of living in Australia and attending a Jesuit or Companion School,” said teacher Alicia.

Alicia said a highlight of her time at CSIL were the Opening and Closing Ceremonies that involved a lot of dancing and singing.

Our students then travel by boat to Atauro Island where Saint Ignatius College Geelong has developed a strong relationship with the people there. Our students teach the young people in the community about Australia and in turn they are taught about Timorese culture and life. 

“I first visited Timor Leste in 2019 as the Assistant Coordinator for the JACSA Immersion. It was a deeply enriching and humbling experience. I have been fortunate enough to visit Jesuit communities and projects in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Kenya and now Timor Leste,” she said.

Photo by Paulie Stewart

The communities that welcomed us in Kasait and Railaco were constantly bursting with joy and life. It was a unique experience to spend time with these school communities that although geographically far from our homes, felt very familiar due to our shared narrative, mission, values, and spirituality.

You can help the Sisters continue their work by sending donations too “Alma Nuns East Timor’ C/O The Jesuit Mission PO BOX 193 North Sydney NSW 2059.