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Timor Leste

Joao de Deus Pires, a priest and pioneer

A lynchpin of the Church in Timor-Leste has died at the age of 91

Thomas Ora, Dili

Thomas Ora, Dili

Published: September 27, 2019 08:52 AM GMT

Updated: September 27, 2019 08:58 AM GMT

Joao de Deus Pires, a priest and pioneer

Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva leads the Sept. 25 funeral Mass for Salesian Father Joao de Deus Pires in Fatumaca, Baucau. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

The Catholic community in Timor-Leste is mourning the death of Salesian Father Joao de Deus Pires, a Portuguese missionary who was instrumental in laying the Church’s foundations during 61 years in the country.

Father Joao died Sept. 22 of health complications at Dili’s Guido Valadares National Hospital, aged 91 and after three weeks of treatment.

Born in Portugal April 15, 1928, he was ordained a priest July 8, 1956, and arrived in Timor Jan. 4, 1958.

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Blessed by his presence

Catholics in Dili Archdiocese pay their last tribute to Father Joao at Don Bosco chapel in Dili before his burial. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said Father Joao had founded the prestigious Fatumaca School, Baucau district in 1964 and had been instrumental in the education of many state and Church leaders. 

Fatumaca continues to be the college of choice for many young people. “The institution has educated many pastors and leaders of this country, including me,” said Archbishop da Silva.

“If he had not established the college, I might not have become a priest, and now a bishop,” the prelate said during the funeral Mass in Fatumaca Sept. 25, before Father Joao was buried at a local cemetery.

Archbishop da Silva said the Church had been blessed by the presence of Father Joao, who built churches, chapels, schools and orphanages for children who had lost their parents during the 24 years of Indonesian rule.

Some students carry Father Joao’s photos and flowers during the funeral. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

The rector of Sts Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Dili, Father Eduardo de Almeida described Father Joao “like a pearl and a mustard seed that has grown on Timor soil.”

“At his young age, he chose to be a missionary, leaving his family behind to come to Timor, a completely strange land for him,” Father Almeida said.

“And in his ministry, he used to walk and sometimes ride his horse to visit people in remote mission stations. But he enjoyed doing all those things.

“He loved the people, despite in many circumstances facing a shortage of food and facilities needed in his work.”

The education pioneer

Alexandre Freitas Gusmao, a former Salesian seminarian, said the priest also established a school in Lahane on the outskirt of Dili, which counts former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri among its former students.

“His example inspired us to be useful people for the Church and nation,” said Gusmao, who heads East Timor’s federation of Salesian alumni.

“Father Joao instilled in us the spirit to work hard and to live the Christian values.”

Father Manuel Pinto, director of the Salesian Formation in Dili, said Father Joao had been an exemplary missionary for generations.

He called him a great school director, teacher and friend of the poor, who throughout his life had shown his character as a humble leader.

“I’m fascinated by his leadership style,” he told ucanews.com.

Gold medal

President Francisco Guterres Lú-Olo appointed troops to carry the coffin to Fatumaca cemetery. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

Two days after his death, President Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo awarded a gold medal to Father Joao in honor of his outstanding service to the country.

The president also offered a state funeral for the priest and suggested that he be buried at the national hero’s cemetery but the Salesian congregation declined it.

According to Father Pinto, his congregation refused the presidential offer to maintain the humble spirit of St. Don Bosco, the founder.

“Father Joao also asked us that he should be buried next to his fellow missionaries in Fatumaca,” he said.

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