The Diocese of Dili established Colégio de São José (St. Joseph’s High School) in 1983/1984. Since East Timor was a part of Indonesia at the time, the school fell under the St. Paul’s Education Foundation of the Diocese of Dili and followed the Indonesian national curriculum. For six years, the new school moved from school to school before it found its current home. In 1989, St. Joseph’s High School was moved to the former Canossian Sisters’ elementary school, which for 28 years had been educating young children between the ages of 6-12 years old. Up until October 1999, we had 350 students of 15-18 years old and 42 teachers. At present time, we have 280 students and 26 teachers. The school is a coeducational system, whereby young boys and girls are educated and trained together.
Among our students, there are approximately 50 seminarians of the “Seminario Menor de Nossa Senhora de Fatima” (the Minor Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima). A seminarian is a boy who is training to become a Catholic priest. In 1993, the Bishop of Dili entrusted the school to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and also gave it a special mission.
Its mission is to train and educate East Timorese youths to be the future leaders/figures of the Church, as well as of the civil society. In accordance to the spirit of the mission, as well as being our primary responsibility, we try our best to select, train, and evaluate our students on a regular basis. In addition to the traditional ways of educating our students, we also enhance their formation through many extracurricular activities such as: music, social services, leadership training, cultural dances, etc. In many ways, the educational system that we have there at Colégio São José (St. Joseph’s) is difficult yet challenging.
Nevertheless, we have seen and felt some of the fruits and rewards of our educational system. St. Joseph’s High School has enjoyed a good reputation as one of the top schools in East Timor for the last few years. Our students are well known for their discipline and are considered not only as academic leaders but also excel in music, as well as in the service of others. This universal practice of serving others, especially the poor and those suffering, along with the spirit of promoting “faith and justice” not only characterizes our Jesuit schools worldwide, but is also the mission of Colégio São José (St. Joseph’s High School) in Dili.
About three years ago, 1999, we put into practice the real and concrete meaning of this “mission” of our school and the fruits of our educational system were clearly evident in the actions of our students and teachers. Around noontime on August 26, 1999, in an impromptu assembly at the school hall, Fr. Joseph Ageng Marwata, S.J. announced his decision that St. Joseph’s would be closed for two weeks due to unexpected turn of events. It was not safe to conduct regular classes amidst unstable political and social situations while East Timor was preparing for its first “national referendum” under the United Nations. While we were still in the hall, we suddenly heard gunshots in our neighborhood. Within a few minutes, hundreds of people poured into our school. They desperately asked for shelter and protection. We welcomed them. Then, together with our minor seminarians and Fr. Albrecht, S.J., we organized ourselves to drive all students to their respective homes. In the later afternoon, some of the teachers and more than 25 students returned to the school. They also asked for the same shelter and protection and offered themselves to serve the refugees within our school compound. Suddenly our motto “of being men and women for others” was lively and present.
This was not the only time that our school sheltered refugees. From August to October 1999, precisely from August 26th to the end of October 1999, our school became a refugee camp for almost 5000 people. There were also 600 refugees in our Jesuit residence in Dili, and 25,000 refugees in our Agricultural Center (10 kilometers from Dili). We had 25 students and some teachers who stayed and guarded the school. We sent the rest to our Jesuit residence and to our Agricultural Center. Although they themselves were considered refugees, they were our brave volunteers in serving the refugees.
Do you know why they became refugees or internally displaced people in their own homeland?
In 1999, East Timor had a unique opportunity to decide its own future. On August 30th the East Timorese people had to decide between the two options of either full autonomy within Indonesia or full independence separated from Indonesia. On September 4, 1999, the results were announced. The East Timorese people chose to have independence. This choice was paid highly by the people. Almost 80-90% of East Timor was devastated and destroyed. Hundreds of people were killed; among them were Fr. Tarcisius Dewanto, S.J. (September 6, 1999, the youngest Jesuit priest and a former teacher of St. Joseph’s was killed while protecting refugees in the church in Suai, about 100km from Dili. Also killed with him were two diocesan priests and possibly hundreds of refugees). Fr. Karl Albrecht, S.J. (September 11, 1999, the first director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor was shot in our Jesuit residence). Also two Canossian sisters and 3 seminarians were killed. All of them are martyrs who offered their lives for others, especially the poor in this case who were refugees.
Who were the refugees and what did our students do for them?
The refugees were ordinary and simple people who had no special relationship with any political parties. They only wanted to be free from oppression and to lead a peaceful and happy life (just like you and I). On September 4th, they won their freedom. Almost 80% of the people chose independence from Indonesia. August 30, 2001, the people cast their ballots for the first national general election. This time, they chose their representatives for the new general constitutional assembly.
Back to our students who were with us during those critical and chaotic moments!
Fighting their own fears, they bravely protected the refugees by chatting and negotiating with the militia. Day and night, they took turns serving the refugees’ needs by comforting them, playing and singing with the children, tending the old and sick, distributing food, leading morning and evening prayers, reading stories, etc. In addition, we held emergency courses in English, cooking, music, etc. We had them engage in these activities to keep them in good shape, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
We could not ignore the threats which also came from the militia who surrounded us, shooting randomly and entering our compound numerous times with their guns and machetes in hand. By conducting these activities we did not allow their threats and our fears to occupy our minds and hearts. Further, these activities gave our students a deep sense of responsibility to the lives of others, and a certain pride in themselves. They discovered they could do things greater then they themselves thought they could.
At the end of those chaotic months, Fr. Marwata, S.J. went around looking for our students and teachers. Regrettably, he was only able to find 252 of the 350 students, and 4 of the 42 teachers.
Where were the rest of them? Or where have they all gone?
Some of these individuals cannot return to East Timor because they are Indonesians. Some students chose to help their families, etc. Now we are starting again from the beginning and starting from the simplest level with our mission and tradition. Today, we have around 280 students along with 10 permanent staff, and 16 part time teachers. Our strongest assets at present are: freedom, hope, and the youth of East Timor.