On song

Two Alma nuns from Timor Leste were recently on a fundraising trip to Australia. Their musical talent was matched only by their amazing energy.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

By Paulie Stewart, OAM – Australian rocker and original member of the Painters and Dockers, as well as a long-standing representative of Jesuit Social Services.

It has to be up there with the most surreal moments in my life.

I’m at the punk music shop Boneyard Records & Relics in the suburb of Redcliffe in Brisbane with Sister Anastasia and Sister Mary, two tiny nuns from Timor Leste, and we have just launched into our version of The Bee Gees’ classic song ‘Islands In The Stream’ to the assembled crowd.

Famed Australian music act The Bee Gees grew up nearby and the nuns, on hearing this, said they loved the legendary Australian trio and so we decided upon doing an impromptu homage to the Brothers Gibb.

We might have fluffed a few lines but the crowd loved it.

The two members of Timor Leste’s Alma nuns order once again completed a successful advocacy and fundraising tour of Australia in November, talking about their work and playing music during school presentations, at churches, at universities, on radio and even at punk music record shops!

The Alma nuns paying homage to the Bee Gees, immortalised in statues behind them in Brisbane.

The Sisters, tiny in stature but huge in heart, and their 400-strong community tend to the needs of more than 5,000 destitute, disabled and abandoned children in Timor Leste and Indonesia on an extremely limited budget.

The Alma nuns get their name from the Association of the Institute for Lay Missionaries. Their order was established by a Dutch missionary priest, Father Paul Hendrikus Janssen, sixty years ago and the nuns live in the same rooms as the children in their care and provide them with food, shelter, life skills and a basic education.

I have helped the Alma nuns visit Australia on four occasions now, after meeting them while in Timor Leste when I was there working on the soundtrack to the 2009 ‘Balibo’ movie. The film, directed by Australian Robert Connolly, tells the story of my brother Tony’s death in East Timor along with four other journalists in the border village of Balibo in 1975, all murdered by Indonesian military forces invading the former Portuguese colony.

I was 15 years old when this occurred, it was in a place I’d never heard of and I thought that everyone would have forgotten about it two weeks later. I could never have imagined the life path that this tragedy would set me on.

No one is more surprised than I that I’ve now visited the country 28 times, most recently accompanying my Indigenous daughter Aretha Brown, a mural painter, who created a huge new work with Timorese collaborators on the wall of the Australian Ambassador’s House. She also painted a mural at the Alma nuns’ dwelling.

On an earlier visit to Timor Leste, I went to what was then the construction site for St Ignatius of Loyola College, the Jesuit school at Kasait. While I was there, I met an interesting guy in work gear. He was literally in a ditch, hard at work in the midday sun. He turned out to be a Jesuit, Fr Quyen Vu SJ, who is now the Provincial of the Jesuits in Australia. Like me, he is also of a fan of the inspirational Alma Sisters, and he invited them in for a cup of tea when they were in Melbourne recently.

Fr Quyen Vu SJ (centre) on the school construction site in Timor Leste, flanked by Chris Dunn (left) and the author.

Like Fr Quyen, I have long been impressed by the work of the always smiling nuns who tend to the “lowest of the low” with a budget of literally nothing.

Even though I wasn’t Jesuit educated (I attended  De La Salle College in Malvern) I was engaged by Jesuit Social Services in 2010 and helped found the Just Voices Speakers Program, which is geared to use others’ stories to bring insight, empathy and understanding. This enabled me to take many young refugees and asylum seekers, former prison inmates, young homeless and young Indigenous speakers into Australian schools to share their inspiring tales.

Nothing beats hearing personal tales and stories from the heart. Just Voices has now provided close to 500 talks at schools – many of them Jesuit and Companion institutions – all around the country. I found myself inspired after hearing the students at Jesuit schools being taught the legacy of St Ignatius in having one foot raised, having empathy for and empowering those living on the margins, as well as being a man and woman for others.

What really impressed me, however, was that these weren’t just hollow words but calls to action with practical follow-throughs, with Jesuit schools putting in place many aid programs and immersions that back this up. Now, I regularly address Jesuit students from schools all around Australia who volunteer to visit Timor Leste to help out on various aid projects. Not everyone realises that the country is only an hour’s flight time from Darwin.

Unfortunately in the COVID-19 years, many of these visits stopped but just recently a big group of students visited the country and, at my urging, they dropped in to visit the Alma nuns and the children in their care at their headquarters in Dili, spending time with the Sisters and their charges. The children loved meeting international visitors who took time out to play and sing with them. Many students later reported back to me personally that this had been the highlight of their visit to Timor Leste.

The Alma Sisters now receive significant support from many Australian contributors and are invited to address students at many schools when they visit here. While in Australia for two weeks recently, Sister Anastasia and Sister Mary did presentations on their mission and a few tunes on acoustic guitar at Newman College Melbourne, St Mary’s College, Star Of The Sea College in Brighton, Assumption College Kilmore, Saint Ignatius College Geelong, Xavier College Kew, Siena College Camberwell, Loreto College Toorak and St Joseph’s College Brisbane.

So inspiring were their presentations at these schools that many students approached the Sisters after their appearances, saying they planned to visit them in Timor Leste and help them with their work.

Once again, the Sisters stayed at St Mary’s College at Melbourne University thanks to the support of their friend and supporter Danusia Kaska, Coordinator of the Xavier Social Justice Network.

As Danusia said: “Darcy McCormack, the principal of St Mary’s College, warmly welcomed the Alma nuns and extended generous hospitality, which they were extremely grateful for. The nuns shared the stories of their work with the children in their care in a way that truly resonated with the student residents at St Mary’s. Many of the latter have now pledged to volunteer with the nuns in the future.

“I know first-hand that the work of the Alma nuns is utterly selfless – their work is constant, generous and incredible. Having seen the children in their care in Dili while on an immersion with a group of Year 11 students from Jesuit and Companion schools around Australia in July this year, it is truly remarkable what the nuns do to help and support the children. Teaching them life skills in addition to literacy, in order to become self-sufficient and independent, is a vital mission in a country without formal Government support or social services that cater to people with disabilities. The work that the Alma nuns do is very humbling as they take care of the most vulnerable.”

Fittingly enough, while they were in Melbourne, the nuns also got a chance to watch the Western Bulldogs Australian Football League Women’s team in action when the club invited them to be special guests after officials saw a clip of the nuns singing the AFLW team’s theme song. Not surprisingly, that clip has received a huge number of views online.

The nuns proudly wearing the colours of the Western Bulldogs as they pose with the mascots of the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) team.

Another important connection was made with Professor Patrick Keyzer, the Dean of Law at the Australian Catholic University, who was “highly impressed” by the selfless work of the Sisters and who offered to help them with their mission. He already works substantially with the disability community in Indonesia.

On their recent visit to Australia, Sister Anastasia and Sister Mary ran into their old friend and  Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan SJ at Newman College and they made a new friend at top radio station 3RRR with DJ Jon Von Goes, after performing a spine-chilling version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on his program.

While in Brisbane, the nuns spent a day making music and telling stories with the “Whoopee-do Crew’’, a community who run a social inclusion program for people experiencing homelessness as well as people of different abilities. While there, they also teamed up with Queensland musical legend Jenny Pineapple. If their schedule sounds tiring, let me tell you something significant – the nuns, who work tirelessly, are usually up at 3.30am each day to assist the children in their care. When I’m in their company, I confess that I struggle to keep up my energy levels.

Major supporters in Australia of the Alma nuns now include two former Xavier College students: lawyer James Hains and Immigration agent Daniel McKinnon. “The Sisters are a source of unbridled joy for everyone who meets them, especially when people come to realise the extraordinary work they do, and their personal sacrifice,’’ said Hains. He added, “But the Sisters would disagree with me, as they regard themselves as truly blessed and fortunate to do the work they do and for any support they receive.”

The nuns are currently building a new home for disabled and orphaned children in an area called Same, East Timor, and they would greatly appreciate any donations. Hains says, “I’m planning to visit them next year and do some cooking for them so they can have some rare nights off.’’

For his part, McKinnon helped arrange the nuns’ Australian visas, which he also paid for. He said: “When I learnt about the Alma Sisters and their selfless attitude, I knew that all of the money raised would be going straight to their work. It was great to meet the Sisters in Melbourne. I think they are the happiest people I have ever met. They are a good reminder of the paradox that helping others makes us much happier than trying to satisfy ourselves. I have told several Xavier Old Boys about their work and many have now generously donated to their work. The Alma nuns are a great example of love in action and their warmth is infectious.’’

To donate to the Sisters in their truly inspirational work, go to the Give2Asia website link below, a charitable fund established by James Hains. All donations over $2 are tax deductible and a minimum of 95% of the money you donate goes straight to the nuns’ account in Dili to support their mission.   

To donate to the Alma nuns, click here

 Click here for a profile of the author, published in The Guardian in December 2022

To buy Paulie Stewart’s book ‘All the Rage’, click here