Timorese Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, also known as Mana Lou, is one of this year's recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. (Photo by Maria Tan)
In the beginning, the bishops were very supportive of her project. They thought she was going to start a religious congregation.
But Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, also known as Mana Lou, had something else in mind.
The woman who was then fresh from her studies in Indonesia wanted to start a "secular institution" with a "Timorese traditional way of understanding the Gospel."
The bishops were aghast. They wanted no part in such a "revolutionary idea" amid the then volatile situation of conflict-ridden Timor-Leste.
There was no stopping Mana Lou. She has been tagged as “louco” or crazy by her detractors for dreaming of what could have been an impossible project.
"Life was not easy," she told ucanews.com in Manila where she received this year's Magsaysay Award for service to the people of her country.
"I encountered a lot of difficulties, and the new bishops were giving me a hard time," she said.
"But that's the reality, and I have to carry on my work," said the founder of the Instituto Seculare Maun Alin Iha Kristo, or Ismaik.
She said she wanted to "complement" what the church and its priests could not do.
"We have a lot to do, like catechism, teaching and helping people, evangelization," she said about what she described as "part of my mission."
"Many priests and nuns understand the situation from a religious perspective, but they don't understand the way of the laity," said Mana Lou.
Discovering her vocation
Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz was born in 1962, one of seven children of a well-to-do coffee planter in Liquica, Timor-Leste.
She studied at a Jesuit institute in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where she was exposed to the "liberation theology" of Gustavo Gutierrez and the pedagogy of Paulo Freire.
She joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity congregation, but left before taking her final vows when she discerned that her personal vocation lay outside the confines of the convent walls.
In 1989, she founded the Instituto Seculare Maun Alin Iha Kristu or Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, a lay institute of men and women dedicated to uplifting the poorest of the poor.
Her organization started projects in health care, education, farming, animal husbandry, and other self-help initiatives.
During Timor-Leste's struggle for independence from Indonesia, Mana Lou built a refuge on her father's coffee estate in Dare, in the hills above the country's capital, Dili.
In time, the refuge would include a school for girls, orphanages, a home for the sick, and a place where people of various faiths and politics could find safety and peace.
In later years, the project expanded to more than ten such houses across the country that are called "schools of life."
Mana Lou also established Bairo-Ata Clinic, a large, free clinic for the poor that serves an average of 300 patients daily.
Mana Lou's "pure humanitarianism in uplifting Timor-Leste's poor" was cited when she received the Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent to the Nobel Prize on Aug. 31.
The award also recognizes her "courageous pursuit of social justice and peace, and her nurturing the development of autonomous, self-reliant, caring citizens."
Mana Lou's way of following Jesus
It was not an easy journey for Mana Lou. Even today, she said people, including priests, nuns and bishops, do not understand what she does.
"Church leaders are giving me a hard time," she said. "They don't understand my spirituality and my charism."
She described her vocation as being linked to the freedom of her country, Timor-Leste.
"I chose to form a secular institution, not a religious one, because I don't want to just live in the convent and pray," she told ucanews.com.
Mana Lou said she wanted to follow the footsteps of Jesus, "but I also want to go outside and be with the people and work with the people."
She said the Gospel teaches that Jesus lived a simple life. "Why is ours so complicated," she said, adding that the church "has become too complicated."
"Rather than focus on the hierarchy, why don't we live a simple life," said Mana Lou. "If we understand Christ, then life would be simple, like Christ."
She said everyone should celebrate the Eucharist and look at the example of Jesus who offered himself "for us to be one and to be united."
Mana Lou said people should follow Jesus "in more practical ways."
"People should take control. If a road needs fixing, we fix it. If someone needs help in farm work, we help," she said.
"Ours is a new nation," said Mana Lou, referring to Timor-Leste. "It will need people to have a heart big enough to love and bodies prepared to do hard work."
She said there's a lot more work to do to achieve genuine freedom. At 56 years old, she said it's time for young people to start working for "a better and free society."
You can learn more about Mana Lou in this ucanews.com video.