Subject: Couple hears calling to work in East Timor

The Catholic Telegraph, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati

October 13, 2006

Couple hears calling to work in East Timor

Maryknoll lay missioners dedicate decade to bettering conditions in Asian nations

ARCHDIOCESE ≠ When Patti and Kim LaMothe heard a pitch in Maryknoll, N.Y., from sister Dorothy McGowan to serve in the beleaguered nation of East Timor, what attracted the couple to renewing a contract as Maryknoll lay missioners was the prospect of helping "build a nation from the ground up."

Patti LaMothe, of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lebanon, and her husband, Kim, a native of Vermont, had just returned from a five-year stint in Cambodia, and now were heading to Indonesia.

"Sister Dorothy and three other Maryknoll Sisters had just left East Timor in 1999, at the end of the violence there," Kim LaMothe said, describing the situation in the former Portuguese colony that was illegally annexed by Indonesia in 1976. Violence escalated in the late 90s, when East Timorese youths were holed up in the U.S. Embassy compound in Jakarta to meet representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in one of several mass attempts at gaining independence from Indonesia.

"When we went there in 2000, it seemed like a country was new, hopeful, it was alive and really needed people with our skills," he said. "So much of the country had been burnt. We knew (the Maryknoll program) needed a carpenter and a teacher who could provide teacher training. It turned out to be the perfect match for us."

When finally arriving in 2002 ≠ on Holy Thursday ≠ the LaMothes knew immediately that they were going to be part of a process of literally building a community up from the ashes of civil war. And much of the skills they would need had been developed while they were in Cambodia working on a project for land mine victims. While Patti worked in that portion of the program, Kim honed his skills as a carpenter, ultimately becoming director of the building program in the southeast Asian country.

As is often the case in war-torn countries, one of the most vulnerable aspects of a nationís infrastructure is its educational system. As Patti LaMothe noted, most of the students she served in a small village of about 3,000 were in the mountains and didnít have access to teacher materials or books. "The national department of education was still just beginning to get materials out to the mountains."

And that spelled the birth of a mobile library that she was involved in establishing, initially sending materials to 11 different schools. Patti LaMotheís teacher-training background came in handy right away.

"Some of the teachers we went to had some high school, but didnít have much formal training. Most teachers were indonesian. Most left in 1999 during those trouble times. Schools needed people to teach. We were fortunate to find Timorese of good will and intelligence who were willing to give teaching a try.

Another problem they faced was the language barrier. Dating to its history as a colony of Portugal, Portuguese was chosen as the official national language, although the local vernacular was Tetun.

"Unfortunately, the education ministry made the decision that even first-graders would be taught Portuguese."

But she noted that she was able to find books for the library in Tetun, and as the couple departed earlier this year, students in grades 1-3 were being taught their native language. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati Mission Office was instrumental in helping raise $5,000 for the LaMotheís library program, providing "lots of books for the students. These books (produced by an aboriginal language publisher in Australia), helped us establish eight libraries with the money from Cincinnati."

Meanwhile, Kim LaMothe focused his energies on construction projects.

"After first arriving, we spent time talking with the Sisters about local needs," he said. "We got some names of people we thought we should be in touch with. But the local director of the education department said that I couldnít really start helping them to build the government schools; these had to be planned and under contract. And there was a fear that I would be taking jobs away."

But the same official said there were several Catholic schools that need a lot of help. "We started out by doing a few monthsí work at primary schools in an outlying village. Then after that, one Maryknoll Sister acting as principal at the local Catholic high school pulled me aside and said she was thinking about rebuilding the school. I lit right up; this is why I came. We started with two classroom buildings and have moved on from there." Over the course of the next few years, the high school program was completed.

Now back home to care for Patti LaMotheís ailing mother, the former Maryknollers look back on East Timor and their nearly decade-long stint as lay missioners with a sense of accomplishment and a hope for the future of the island nation.

"East Timor is full of hope as well as full of challenges," Kim LaMothe said. "After 450 years of colonial occupation by Portuguese and 25 years under Indonesia, they are really trying to figure out how to rule themselves. To their credit, the people in our district realized they have to be patient. And they are. Their next election is in 2007, and they are hoping for good choices. We hold out that same hope for them."

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