After eighteen years in East Timor, Sister Dorothy McGowan reflects, “The East Timorese are a remarkable people who believed in their vision, resisted until they were free and who are now trying to forgive into the future.”
Presently Sister Dorothy works in a community based health program, training health promoters for twenty-two villages of Aileu in the mountains of East Timor. She also works in the Family Life Center, a collaborative effort between the church and the government promoting health and education of the people.
In 1991 when Sister Dorothy and four other Maryknoll Sisters arrived in East Timor, the country was still firmly under Indonesian control. They saw this former Portuguese colony struggle under annexation by Indonesia and they were there when the people of East Timor voted for Independence. They were the first Sisters assigned to the new parish of Aileu but the people welcomed them as “madres,” and at the people’s suggestion they began pastoral, health and education work.
When the Indonesian forces withdrew from East Timor they and their local militias went on a reign of terror. As foreigners, the Sisters went on the last plane to fly out during the evacuation to Australia where they worked with Timorese refugees for six weeks. On their return in November, 2000, they found the clinic, school and convent were destroyed along with the people’s houses. But the spirit of the people were not destroyed.
Today, in addition to five Maryknoll Sisters, the team includes volunteers who all work together and with the people to build a culture of peace. The team also shares prayer, reflection and celebrations together.
Sister Dorothy entered Maryknoll from New York City in 1952. She graduated from Maryknoll Teachers College and earned a Master’s degree in Mathematics at Notre Dame University. Sister Dorothy was assigned to the Philippines and as an educator took giant steps because of the great need, teaching high school for a year and then being head of the Mathematics Dept. at Maryknoll College. In a short time, Sister Dorothy became Dean of Students.
“During the Marcos/martial law era, I had the privilege of living among and working with the Filipino people whose faith, joy and family spirit enlivened and strengthened me.”
As a member of the Maryknoll Sisters General Assembly in 1974, Sister Dorothy was elected to the Maryknoll Sisters Central Governing Board, “where I learned much about teamwork, friendship and the mission presence of Maryknoll Sisters throughout the world.”
After this service, she spent eight years in Indonesia, where her ministry was a “dialogue of life” with her Muslim neighbors along with health promotion and work in the Catholic seminary. Sister Dorothy was touched by the peoples’ prayerfulness, hospitality and strong family spirit. When the government’s policy increasingly limited work by foreign church workers in majority Muslim areas, it became difficult to renew visas. So the Sisters who were in Bandung applied to work in a diocese with more Catholics. When Bishop Carlos Belo invited them to East Timor which had been annexed by Indonesia and was a diocese of 700, 000 Catholics, the Sisters accepted and entwined their histories with those of East Timor.