Strong, selfless love: The Alma Nuns of Timor Leste

Thursday 5 December 2019

Paulie Stewart, Jesuit Social Services

I couldn’t cut it as an Alma Nun. After a recent visit to the convent in tropical Malang, Indonesia, I freely admit I do not have the stamina, staying power, grace or daily drive of this remarkable group of women.
 Paulie Stewart and the Alma Nuns. 
The nuns are a Catholic minority in Malang, but local Muslims treat them with the utmost respect given their thankless, relentless, heart-breaking job of tending to their country's disabled and abandoned children regardless of their religion.

The 400 nuns in the order look after more than 3000 children in Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

At their facility, the nuns run programs for children with high needs disabilities: blind children, deaf children, children with severe learning difficulties, children with cerebral palsy, children with autism and more. They also look after many children who have simply been abandoned by their parents.

The Alma Order (Association of the Institute for Lay Missionaries) was established by a Dutch priest Father Paulus Hendrikus Jessen, who worked alongside the Sisters to the ripe old age of 95. His well-tended grave is outside the chapel at the nun’s headquarters, in a town of 1 million people in the hills of East Java. There they run a nearby fish farm to provide meagre but much-needed funds and employment for some of the disabled in their care. There is also a facility to house elderly nuns and a house full of young novices training to be full-time Sisters.

When I arrived, the novices floored me when they held an impromptu concert in my honour. With great harmonies, sweet smiles and lots of giggling they were just fantastic. When it was my turn to sing a song, I messed up the words to the Bob Marley classic ‘One Love’, not that it mattered to the Sisters, who all joined in for a truly rousing rendition that would have made old Bob proud. 
Singing to the Sisters.
Most inspiring Nun was 84-year-old Sister Sur who daily still rises at 4am to begin her day of tending to the children. Although tiny in stature, she has a giant heart and soul.
 Paulie Stewart and Sister Sur.  
Caring for a disabled youngster in Australia would be a hard job, and in Malang with no specialised facilities or modern equipment and little government support, you’d think they’d be battling. But that doesn’t deter the Alma Nuns who spend each day tending to those in their care. You will never meet a group of more kind-hearted, patient, humble and hard-working women. On my many times in their company, I have never heard one complaint and they all seem to be permanently smiling.

The Nuns take a radical approach to always being in the same rooms as their children. ‘We love them and value them very much. That is why we live with them to be there on the spot to assist them day and night,’ said Sister Eli. ‘When we cook they eat first. It is very important to us there is no division between us. We feel like the children are gifts God has sent to us.’

I first met the Alma Nuns in Timor-Leste 10 years ago during the making of the Balibo movie about my brother Tony Stewart, one of the journalists who was killed in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 along with four of his colleagues.
I was employed by director Robert Connolly to help with the music for the film with my band of East Timorese Australian musicians, the Dili All-Stars, for which we won the 2009 ARIA Award for Best Soundtrack.

At the time, a good friend Abel Guterres (East Timor's Ambassador to Australia) had urged me to visit the Nuns in Dili who worked, he said, with the ‘lowest of the low.’

What startled me was meeting the Alma Nuns, going on their daily rounds with them and seeing their work first-hand. One little nun, the formidable Sister Renzi Elisabeth, would get up every morning, walk 10 kilometers to the village of a little crippled girl, rub her legs for a few hours with massage oil, and then walk the 10 kilometers home, just to give the girl some relief.

I couldn't believe one human being would do this for another.

There is no money, fame or glory in such a deed and yet because the little nun pays attention to this girl, the rest of the village now treats her with more respect.
A highlight of my visit to Malang was that Sister Rezi travelled all the way from Papua to catch up with ‘Mr Paulie’.

Since I met the nuns 10 years ago, I have been singing their praises in Australia and people here have been quick to respond. First, an appeal was launched to buy the Nuns a new van and an invaluable $80,000 was promptly donated by typically generous Australians. A further large donation from an Australian supporter saw the Nuns build two new classrooms in Timor-Leste to educate their charges.

Leading Australian children's entertainers The Wiggles also heard of the work of the Alma Nuns and have given me large donations of shoes, boots, clothes, sporting gear and educational materials to the Sisters.
Alma Nuns and the children wearing shirts from The Wiggles. 
On three separate occasions, I have been on the rounds to small rural villages in Timor-Leste accompanying the Nuns. Twice we have brought groups of Alma Nuns to Australia to share the story of their work and amongst the schools, they have appeared at are Xavier College Kew, Star of The Sea Gardenvale, St Ignatius River Sydney and Loyola College Western Sydney. Both students and teachers were charmed by the nuns, most noticeably Sister Anastacia who despite very limited English, found the courage to get up and talk.

The Alma Nuns have been a blessing in my life and hanging out with them is my way of coping with what happened to my brother. I am in their debt.

If you would like to help the good Sisters to continue their great work, you can send donations to: The Jesuit Mission, PO Box 193 North Sydney 2059 for "Alma Nuns" account. 
Paulie Stewart is a project officer for Jesuit Social Services and was as an original member of infamous Melbourne punk band Painters and Dockers, and founding member of East Timorese/Australian band The Dili Allstars, awarded a 2009 ARIA award for Best Soundtrack for the movie Balibo.
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