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Fr João Pires de Deus, SDB passed away

By Provincial Secretary TLS

Dili, Timor Leste, 22 September 2019 -- The most senior member of the Timor Leste Vice Province, Fr. Joao Pires de Deus, passed away on Sunday, 22 September at 4:40 p.m at 91 years of age, after 61 years of missionary life in East Timor (1958 January 4 - 2019 September 22), 72 years of religious life and 53 years as a Salesian priest.

Most of his ministry was spent in the eastern part of East Timor, today the territory of Baucau diocese: in the communities of Baucau, Fatumaca, Laga, Los Palos and Quelicai. After more than 60 years of persistent, faithful missionary work he can claim to have baptised a good 80,000 people, witnessed thousands of marriages, and consistently spread the word of God.

In difficult times in the past he was taken both by Fretilin and by the Indonesian army, but he remained solidly with the poor during those difficult days. The then guerilla leader, now national hero Xanana Gusmao gave him the code name 'Liras', ([eagles] wings).

12 years ago Fr Joao gave an interesting interview to the Portuguese Salesian Bulletin, to speak of his life if it would benefit the Salesian Family and especially the young.

Born in Morais, Macedo de Cavaleiros on 15 april 1928, a poor town in Portugal, it wasn't until he entered the diocesan seminary that he first heard of Don Bosco, and of the fact that two Portuguese Salesians were about to depart for Timor (Fr Preto and Bro Ribeiro). He entered the Salesian novitiate and his novice master was Fr Nacher, who also later went to Timor. Fr Joao claims that his missionary vocation was not his intention! He accepted the request to go to East Timor under religious obedience, or better, 'in the spirit of religious obedience' as he puts it.

Reflecting on life and times in Timor, Fr Joao admits that as poor and tough as times were, people were without pretensions and looked to their ancestral culture for certainty. Then came western influence which brought many changes. The people he ministered to, while not at the time necessarily Christian, were monotheistic and practical. If anything they 'thingified' God, called Him 'Lulik', the sacred one.

Salesians in those early days were only in Dili and at Fuiloro. Then in 1971/2 came the presence in Baucau, where Fr Joao was sent and in whose general region he remained until today. Then there were just two churches. Today there are more than sixteen. 1975 was a tough year for our missionary. He was taken first by the Fretilin, spending much of the time on foot as they moved to avoid discovery. He spent Christmas that year as a prisoner of a war raging around him. Then he was captured by the Indonesians and held for some days.

When asked by the interviewer if he 'collaborated' with the guerillas, Fr Joao put it this way: "It was all part of a triangle: guerillas-the poor-the Church. The Church was the spokesman, the guerillas were armed, and the poor were the body who supported the guerillas". He never met Xanana directly during those times, but passed on messages as requested in order to help. Instead, he had known Xanana's parents who were teachers at Baucau. "Excellent people". Only later, after east Timor's independence, did he meet Xanana face to face, where the latter told him that "he was my right arm".

At the conclusion of his interview, which was done in Portugal, the interviewer asked Fr Joao as he was about to return to East Timor, what his dream for the future was. The response? "The same as I have had up till now. To live amongst the poor and for them."

The final years of his missionary life Fr. Joao spent amidst the young Salesians at the Postnovitiate community of Blessed Artemide Zatti in Dili-Comoro.

Today the whole Salesian Family with 160 Salesians mourn this legendary missionary, who changed the life of so many people with his humble ministry of a good shepherd. We pray, that his missionary life witness will inspire many young people of Timor Leste to offer their life in the service of the Gospel!

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