Sister Lourdes with two of her "friends"

The children represented here live in an orphanage in East Timor. Some are truly orphans. Others are cared for here because their families cannot afford to, or are living in dangerous situations. Some come to live in the orphanage in order to maintain the East Timorese culture -- if they attend "public" school, they are taught Bahasa Indonesian instead of their native language of Tetuan. They are overwhelmed with Indonesian culture and history instead of learning their own. The Indonesian transmigration program further removes these children from their culture.

Maria Lourdes Martins Cruz (Sister Lourdes) takes care of these children.

Sister Maria Lourdes Martin Cruz courageously and modestly supports people, primarily women and children, who live in fear of imprisonment, torture, rape, death and other violations of their human rights. She is striving to help these people to be aware of their dignity as human beings and improve the conditions in which they live.

Maria Cruz is a woman in her thirties who, having tried religious (Catholic) life with an Italian based order, left in 1989 to found a secular institute in East Timor called Maun Alin Iah Kristu (Sisters and Brothers in Christ). The aim and vision of the Institute is to serve the East Timorese community, both with basic survival necessities, and with longer term goals of improving their socio-economic position and reviving and preserving the East Timorese culture which is eroding under the oppression of the Indonesia government.

Maria started the physical Institute on some family property in Dare. With the help of a number of young women and friends, the land was cleared and a simple center was built, with a chapel, a school room, a dining room and a number of very basic dormitories. Cooking and washing are done outside.

Maria began by organizing basic courses for girls still in high school in 1990. In 1993 nine of these girls left school and formally joined Maria. During the next two years more young women came forward so that by 1996 twenty-five had been through a formation program focusing on social responsibility, women's skills, health issues, people-centered faith development and agriculture and cattle-breeding. Maria is also developing an approach to peacemaking among the women - seeing them as the major formators of children and the ones who have to confront violence and militarism.

While starting with older girls and women, Maria has progressively taken on the care of more and younger children. In addition to the Dare site, Maria and her Institute have built three more schools in Aileu, Viqueque, and Betano. In August 1997, she was caring for 35 adults (including her candidates) and 16 children in Dare, 1 adult and 17 high school children in Aileu, 5 adults and 7 children in Viqueque, and 1 adult and 14 children in Betano. By the spring of 1998, she had taken on the care of 75 more children. The numbers continue to increase.

All of the children Maria cares for need to be fed, clothed, educated and housed. They strive to be self-supporting, growing and selling produce in the local markets -- corn, cassava, bananas, coffee, tea and tapioca. They also raise chickens and pigs. But, water is a precious commodity in East Timor, and drought conditions are common. At times, Maria has had to beg in the streets to feed the women and children that she cares for.

Maria is a protector of these women and children. She saves them from rape and torture by the Indonesian military. She has confronted the military and negotiated to secure the release of her people. And, perhaps most amazingly, she has enlisted Indonesian soldiers from the military installation near the school in Dare to teach hygiene and leadership skills to the children there. By befriending the "enemy" she reduces the risk that they will harm her people.

Although Sister Lourdes is Catholic (as is most of the East Timorese population), the Institute is secular and receives no official funding from the Catholic Church. Donations received from people who hear about her work are immediately used to expand her mission, either by increasing the number of people she cares for, or by providing additional services. For example, during the summer of 1998, we raised and sent $800 in donations to her. We learned that she used that money to obtain property (a house) in Dili that is available for use by poor people from rural areas of East Timor who travel to Dili in search of medical attention -- essentially the "Ronald McDonald House" of Dili.

The Institute was officially approved by Bishop Belo (Nobel Peace Prize Awardee) early this year (1998), Sister Lourdes took her perpetual vows on February 5, 1998. Being recognized as a nun gives Sister Lourdes better access to the East Timorese people who are being detained, and, in the words of one human rights worker, "priests and nuns are bullet-proof" in East Timor. While this isn’t absolutely the case, she is able to work more freely to resolve perilous situations as a nun than as a lay person.

Daily life in East Timor is a significant obstacle that many of us would find overwhelming. Sister Lourdes perseveres. Her schools/orphanages are accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicle, which she doesn’t have, yet she enlists the aid of local priests and laymen in order to obtain supplies and for transportation between sites. She has engaged volunteers who are currently working on a water sanitation and rainwater collection project to help solve the problem of water safety and accessibility. She works as an intermediary between the East Timorese and the oppressive Indonesian military. She is a peacemaker. She sees a problem and finds a solution. She teaches the women and children of East Timor that they have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity.

In 1997, Maria was awarded the Pax Christi Prize for peace (Pax Christi is an international Catholic peace organization formed in 1945 by a small number of French Catholics to foster reconciliation between the French and Germans). Although Maria was unable to attend the award ceremony, she sent along this message to the group:

Peace begins with solidarity
Message from Maria Lourdes Martins Cruz, 1997

As servants of Christ, we have ideals and dreams, we would like to work with all our strength to build a new world where there will be sisterly and brotherly relations among people. In the spirit of being daughter, sister, initiator and animator, we would like to help them to love one another as true sisters and brothers in Christ.

On the map East Timor is just part of a tiny island. There are very many people but they are spread out all over the island. Most of the people are uneducated and for many the lack of knowledge is the cause of much suffering. Not just physically, but more specifically as human beings. The people always live in the shadow of death because of warfare which still goes on always and everywhere; they are divided among themselves. All this means poverty, hunger, disease and moral decline. The people of East Timor live in a situation and atmosphere of suppression, without clear orientation towards the future, much stress and little hope for brighter days.

Concern for these people and their situation is a challenge to those who are better off, both inside the country as well as outside, to stretch out a helping hand, to support these people as much as possible. Many try to help in the field of development, economics and also politics. Political help and attention is important indeed. But the main point is the question: how can we help to lift up the people to human dignity?

This concern for the ordinary poor people in East Timor made me start the secular institute, Maun Alin Iah Kristo (Sisters and Brothers in Christ). At the moment our main activities are educating the members of the institute to be companions and sources of inspiration to the people; being involved in so-called non-formal education - this includes not only intellectual formation but also training in hygiene, social and economic skills, cultural activities and spiritual formation; together with the poor families, who very often do not have any social-economic strength, we try to take care of the future of their children; and special care is given to poor women, helping them to develop a more decent way of life, worthy of a human being. Often, women suffer most because of lack of education and because of the traditional view of women which places them in an inferior position.

In all this work we try to cooperate with whoever wants to join us. If we could succeed in this, we would be sure that peace, love, justice, truth, freedom, forgiveness, and unity will be born. Peace begins with solidarity.

Click here to read an article from "The Tablet" about the Pax Christi award that Sister Lourdes has received for her work.

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