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Timor Leste

American Carmelite missionary helped Timor-Leste's poor

The late Brother Sean Keefe was a prolific educationist, champion of the poor and advocate of social justice

American Carmelite missionary helped Timor-Leste's poor

Carmelite Brother Sean Keefe was a champion of the poor in Timor-Leste for two decades. The American missionary died in Australia at the age of 74 on Jan. 6. (Photo: Carmelites in Australia and Timor-Leste)

American Carmelite missionary Brother Sean Keefe is hailed as a prolific educationist in his homeland and Australia.

In Timor-Leste, the tiny Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation, he is regarded a champion of the poor and advocate of social justice.

In 2016, he became the first Australia-based Carmelite to be honored with the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia for extraordinary contributions in Australia and Timor-Leste

His death on Jan. 6 at the age of 74 in Australia brought an end to his 50-year illustrious religious life that spanned his native land and the Asia-Pacific region. He was buried on Jan. 14 following a simple funeral service following Covid-19 protocols.

A memorial requiem Mass for Brother Sean was held and livestreamed from the National Shrine of Saint Theresa on the Carmelite Campus at Darien in Illinois, United States, on Jan. 27.

The late missionary was eulogized by the Carmelites, friends and well-wishers as a “great educator, counselor, mentor, servant and friend.”

“Sean’s gift for nurturing warm, supportive relationships drew many into his circle of friendship and made them willing partners in his various activities,” the Carmelites Province in Australia and Timor-Leste said in a statement.   

“He will be greatly missed by the Carmelites, the Whitefriars College community, the people of Manningham (Victoria, Australia) and Zumalai (Timor-Leste) and his many friends and colleagues.”

Agedo Bento, a Timorese master’s of education student at Australian Catholic University, described the missionary as a great friend and mentor. "Thank you for everything you have done to us,” Bento said. 

Sean Keefe was born on Aug. 26, 1946, in Louisville, Kentucky, to devout Catholics John James Keefe and Mary Theresa (Carrico) Keefe. He was the eldest of three sons.

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He went to study at Mount Carmel College in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, in 1964 after being attracted to the Carmelite values of prayer, community and service. He joined the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in 1965. He pronounced first and final vows with the Carmelites in 1967 and 1974 respectively.

Brother Sean obtained a bachelor's degree in English literature from Niagara University in 1974 and a master’s degree in education from Western Kentucky University in 1976.

According to his confreres, Brother Sean always promoted the idea of social justice through the ministry of education.

From 1974 to 2000, Brother Sean was a teacher at DeSales High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein and Joliet Catholic Academy in Joliet, Illinois.

In 2001, he moved to Manningham, Australia, where he became a teacher and chaplain of Whitefriars College.

Brother Sean continued his advocacy for social justice in his new workplace. He promoted a strong community and social justice ethos among staff and students, fostering the involvement of students with local Manningham City initiatives, especially those aimed at isolated and disadvantaged people.

A friend of the poor

The Carmelite friar found his true calling when he arrived in Timor-Leste for the first time in 2004. He told his friends that he was struck by the poverty and the plight of the people.

He devoted himself to supporting the Catholic community of Carmelite-run Zumalai Parish.

“Most people don’t have electricity or running water in their homes. They live in small, simple houses with barely enough to eat,” Brother Sean told his colleagues as noted on the Carmelites’ website.

The Carmelites have been in Timor-Leste since 1999, shortly after the country gained independence from Indonesia after years of occupation and a fierce battle for self-government.

The Carmelite Mission in Timor-Leste was started by Indonesian Carmelite friars in collaboration with the Carmelite Sisters. In 2001, Australian Carmelites took responsibility for the mission.

In capital Dili, the Carmelites have two communities: one for young men in their first two-year pre-novice formation and one for novices and professed students. Currently, there are 45 Timorese Carmelites in formation from just one in 2001.

They also look after Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Zumalai, about 140 kilometers from Dili.

The parish is comprised of about 17,000 Catholics spread across 36 villages. In Zumalai, the Carmelites run a primary school, health clinic, youth center, mechanic workshop and a boarding house for children. 

Brother Sean got involved in the Timor-Leste mission that supported the local community through activities such as installation of solar panels and a clean water filtration plant. He also joined efforts to help the people develop improved farming practices to tackle the food shortage and even offered food aid to people by purchasing rice.

He engaged both the Whitefriars in Australia and wider communities in fundraising for a scholarship program that allowed dozens of young Timorese to complete secondary school or to obtain skills for teaching, health care, technology and mechanical trades.

His fundraising efforts included organizing a series of concerts and an annual walkathon for Timor-Leste that has raised nearly US$300,000 since 2010.

He convinced benefactors by speaking about the difficulties many Timorese face in gaining access to education.    

Since 2012, Brother Sean organized exchange programs for groups of Whitefriars College students in Timor to show them the hard reality of life. The students have lent helping hands in Dili and in Zumalai to teach English to students and worked side by side with local people in farming and mechanical projects.

The Order of the Carmelites is a major Catholic monastic religious order founded in the 12th century. There are about 2,000 Carmelites in up to 30 countries and territories.

Besides Carmelite friars, priests and nuns, there are thousands of laypeople across the globe who identify themselves as lay Carmelites who vow to uphold the Carmelite mission of “community-prayer-action.”

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