A PRIEST who grew up hiding in a forest amongst East Timor’s independence fighters has praised the efforts of Queensland Catholics helping to rebuild his war-ravaged village.
Fr Evaristo Da Costa travelled to Burleigh Heads to personally thank parishioners who have spent the past five years raising money and donating for the reconstruction of his parish’s St Teresinha College in Ossu, in Timor’s mountainous east.
He also arrived for the dedication of Burleigh’s Mary, Mother of Mercy Church, with his own parish playing a very special part in the dedication ceremony.
Precisely at the same time the dedication took place in Burleigh on March 10, the people of St Teresinha parish – including schoolchildren and teachers – attended Mass, praying in solidarity with their Brisbane archdiocese brothers and sisters.
“I just want to thank all of them, everyone here who gave their money for our construction,” said Fr Da Costa, expressing his heartfelt appreciation for the parish-to-parish partnership between Burleigh Heads and Ossu.
“I would like to ask them to strengthen our co-operation and continue to help us in the future.”
The Ossu region is slowly rebuilding after the fighting and violence that occurred during 25 years of Indonesian occupation.
Burleigh Heads parishioners have played a role in re-roofing school buildings and repairing classrooms.
They have raised $US30,000, which includes the sale of Timor craft work sent from Ossu.
Other moneys have come from Kindermissionwerk in Germany, schools in Geelong and from Rotary – each a vital contributor towards raising $US186,000 needed for stage one of the St Teresinha school project.
The project is being co-ordinated by Marist Solidarity.
Fr Da Costa, who has known poverty and suffering most of his life, understands the importance of education and spiritual nourishment of his people.
He is the ninth of 12 children born in the village of Buibau in East Timor’s Baucau region.
In 1975, when he was seven years old, his family was forced to flee into the forest to escape Indonesian soldiers.
Fr Da Costa’s family lived in the forest in the hills behind Baucau for three years.
The children were expected to assist the Fretlin independence fighters at night, by reporting any Indonesian military activity.
In the morning the children helped to distribute food and tools to build houses.
In the afternoon the children attended political instruction from the Fretlin militia.
Each day in the forest followed a similar pattern with no formal schooling for the children.
Finally when Fr Da Costa was 11 years old and his father was unwell from the deprivation experienced in the forest, the family surrendered to the Indonesian occupying forces in Baucau.
By that time one of his sisters and two of his brothers had died; however Fr Da Costa was able to finish his primary schooling and go on to complete his secondary schooling.
He was taught by Salesian Brothers.
Fr Da Costa went on to university studies in science and biology in Dili.
He earned money to support himself and to pay for his studies by selling newspapers on the streets.
At the same time the young Evaristo maintained connection with the underground freedom movement in East Timor.
At the age of 30, he completed his studies in 1997, found employment as a science teacher at the Sacred Heart College in the Becora district in Dili.
It was at this time that he felt he had a calling to the priesthood.
It was the present Bishop of Baucau Bishop Basilio do Nascimento, then the Bishop of Dili, who gave Fr Da Costa permission to join the seminary in Dili in 1999.
Almost a decade later, after experience as a trainee priest Fr Da Costa was ordained a deacon and then sent to Ossu, where he became parish priest.
In the same year that Fr Da Costa was appointed parish priest, a group of parishioners from the Gold Coast visited Ossu, and offered to help repair the roof of his school.
Since that time a strong bond has grown, with Burleigh Heads couple Sue and Bren Milsom driving efforts to raise funds and rebuild the school.
In 2014, Burleigh priest Fr Ken Howell visited East Timor, describing three days spent in Ossu as an “eye-opening experience” where he found “extra faith and life” among the poor.
Fr Da Costa said he saw his lifetime work as rebuilding people’s lives, a task which Australian Catholics were helping with in concrete ways.
“I am very, very glad with my vocation. I would like to serve my community and develop my country. That’s my job,” he said.
“God called me to serve everyone.”
Fr Da Costa said he would return to East Timor with many great memories of the Burleigh Heads parish.