The God Of Surprises

By Sr Petronila P. Lalic CM

Sister Petronila, from Florida Blanca, Pampanga, shows how the Philippine Province of the Carmelite Missionaries has developed its mission in Indonesia. It also has missions in Taiwan and Thailand. Fifty-one of the 192 professed Sisters in the province work in these missions. You can learn more about the Carmelite Missionaries, or Carmelitas Misioneras Teresianas, at

The author, center, with her confreres at Rumak Adat,
 a sacred place for sacred objects and rites

God is a God of surprises, as I have seen in my life! One sultry afternoon in April 1995, Sr Ma Fely Covacha, our then Provincial Superior, summoned our four communities to our Provincial House in Quezon City. She wanted to share her visit to Indonesia with Sr Socorro Garrachico, a member of the Provincial Council.  This visit was a response of Blessed Francisco Palau Province (Philippines) to one of the Lines of Action of the CM XVII GENERAL CHAPTER (1994) in ASIA: Missionary Carmel poses the challenges of consolidation and expansion of the Charism in triple dialogue with religions, cultures and the poor. The line of action was to prepare sisters for ad gentes, a new evangelizing presence in Thailand and Indonesia.

Sister Ma Fely brought what seemed to be a mini-museum of Indonesian artifacts to the meeting. She told us about each item, from the batik cloth to the photos of different places of interest. Among these were a Catholic university with some professors, religious-administered secondary schools with students at prayer, religious men and women engaged in evangelization through their various apostolates such as education, pastoral ministry and health care in a predominantly Muslim country. This country of 13,000 islands has more Muslims than any other country – 195,000,000 – with the fourth highest population in the world, about 220,000,000. The harvest indeed is great but the laborers few. Although the official religion is Islam, the government respects other religions. Feasts of other faiths are included in the school calendar as holidays. The reason behind this religious freedom enjoyed by Catholics, Buddhists and Protestants is found in the Pancasila (‘panchasEEla’), the five principles of the Republic of Indonesia (  Belief in one God Almighty is the first principle.

Religious vocations are flourishing, especially in the island of Flores. The faithful have a tender devotion to the Blessed Mother, whom they fondly call ‘Bunda,’ ‘Holy Mother.’  Like Filipinos, they honor her, especially in May and October, through the block rosary.

Sister Fely jokingly remarked that Indonesians are seemingly rich because they spend in thousands! Imagine, we paid the taxi driver 20,000 rupiahs, the equivalent of P20!

Promptings of the Spirit

‘Any volunteers?’ Sister asked afterwards. To my surprise, the enthusiastic raising of hands didn’t happen, as it usually does when the question of foreign missions comes up. I wondered why.  Could it be shyness? Apprehension? Discernment?  I really didn’t know.

Afterwards, our community was the last to go. Sister Ma Fely startled me with a question. ‘Nelly (my nickname), would you like to go to Indonesia?’ Without batting an eye, I heard myself saying with astonishment, ‘Yes, Sister!’ God surprised me at that moment. At 54 I wasn’t young anymore. I came to understand later that age doesn’t matter in the Lord’s kingdom. What counts most is obedience because it makes miracles and deepens and strengthens faith: ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’ (Phil 4: 13). I really believe that my quick reply was because of the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Sister Ma Fely gave me a short but revealing advice before we parted: ‘Be prepared.’

My letter of appointment came in April. I was to teach English at the Catholic University and to help foster our charism among the Indonesians. The letter underscored the following: ‘. . . this is the time to realize the message of our Lord that was spoken again and again during the visit of our Holy Father: “Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).’ This brought to mind World Youth Day in the Philippines in January of 1995, where I was one of the youth animators. Indeed what we give to others, the Lord gives us back in return. In animating the youth, I myself was animated. More than that, I was sent!

Sr Rosario Fe C. Lorenzo, my companion, and I landed in Indonesia, with Sister Ma  Fely, in 13 March 1996. The number is unforgettable – our luggage numbered 13 pieces in all. Lucky for us! Though documents we sent to the late Archbishop Gregorius Manteiro SVD of Kupang in West Timor were received very late, we were granted the two-year ‘expert visa’ instead of the ‘cultural visit’ one that has to be renewed each month. Recently, this expensive ordeal became our lot. UNIKA, the Catholic University in Kupang, sponsored us.  Some of our Sisters returned the favor by serving as campus ministers afterwards. Kupang was chosen for our first foundation instead of East Timor, thanks to the wisdom of Canossian Sister Yolanda, a friend of Sister Ma  Fely. The governor then was a Catholic and the region was noted for vocations.

In our home

Sister Rose and I taught English in the diocesan high schools after taking language lessons for nearly three months with Fr Anton Riberu SVD, an Indonesian, and with Sr Ma Pureza Romano RVM, one of the Filipino pioneers in Kupang.  We found Indonesian easy to learn. One day I went with Etty, the cook, to the market because I needed some coconuts to prepare pitsi-pitsi (cassava cake). I said to her in Indonesian, ‘Etty, aya mau membeli kepala,’ ‘Etty, I want to buy heads.’ She answered, ‘Sister, disini, tidak ada yang menjual kepala. Barangkali, maksud mu, kelapa?’ ‘Sister, nobody sells heads (kepala) here. Perhaps, you mean coconuts (kelapa)?’

Meanwhile, many young people wanted to join us. The late Fr Thomas Khaloor, OCD Delegate General then, guided our aspirants in Bajawa, Flores. We stayed at the Penginapan, the priests’ guesthouse of the diocese. The Director, the late Fr Blasius Fernandez SVD, became our first spiritual director/confessor.

Laying the foundation

It was providential that we stayed at the  Penginapan for eleven months because the diocesan priests who visited from distant parishes became our vocation promoters. We came to know better the people’s religions, culture, customs, traditions and problems, which challenged us to respond adequately as Carmelite Missionaries.

Courtesy call to Kupang Bishop

Archbishop Manteiro, who died the following October, officiated at the blessing of our first community house on 31 May 1997, the Feast of the Visitation. This was fitting because, as Sister Ma  Fely affirmed, Mary, Our Lady of the Virtues, is the patroness of our mission in Indonesia and has responded with grace-filled surprises. Many religious men joined us in our thanksgiving to the Lord. We warmly welcomed our first eleven aspirants to realize the implanting of our charism. The house, named Rumah Sta  Teresita, St Therese’s House, is located in Walikota, Kupang, accessible to transportation and near the parish church.

Growing in number

Carmelite and diocesan priests come here to celebrate Mass and hear the confessions of the community. They were our first staunch friends, supporters and benefactors in a time of great need. In God’s time, more young girls were attracted to what is truly characteristic of Missionary Carmel: prayer, silence, a family atmosphere where sisterly love is promoted, simplicity, joy, loving service for the Church and Marian devotion. Consequently, we grew in number and needed more formation houses.

Abundance of God’s blessings

We opened a house in Yogyakarta, the university belt of Indonesia, looking to the higher education of our young women in formation. We established our novitiate in Noelbake, Kupang. Our first house in Walikota, Kupang, remained as the postulants’ house and later became the Regional House with Sr Ester Padilla as the first elected Regional Coordinator. We found a house for our aspirants. The Lord continued with his surprises.  More Sisters came on mission to Indonesia. The Semarang community was established for Catholic University Campus ministry. The newly-erected community in Pariti, Kupang, responds to the pastoral and educational needs of the parish of St Peter. With the help of a funding agency, we’re building a new novitiate in Kefamenanu more conducive to silence and solitude.

These ten years of the Lord’s surprises and wonders call for a celebration, as stated by our present Provincial Superior, Sr Lourdes Dizon. Indeed, there is another reason to do so, as our tenth year  in Indonesia coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the presence of the Carmelite Missionaries in the Philippines.

Blessings abound

As we count the many blessings our Indonesian mission has received, we call to mind all the people whom God gave to us who have not left us alone in our struggle to be faithful to the mission entrusted to us. We thank them sincerely and fervently pray that God may bless them all according to the wealth of his loving kindness.

All is grace

Indeed, ‘from his fullness, we have all received grace in return for grace’ (John 1:16). What is our response to this abounding grace? To give thanks to God unceasingly and, in communion with all the Carmelite Missionaries of Father Francisco Palau Province (Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia), strive to enter into a relationship with the Father, the author and the source of all good and blessings, to be open to the transforming love of His Son, Jesus Christ and to be docile to the Holy Spirit, so that we can be continuously motivated by love in doing the mission entrusted to us.

You may write Sister Petronila at:

Fr Francisco Palau Community, Novisiat, Susteran Misionaris Carmelit, Jl Tim-tim Km 16, Noelbaki, KUPANG 85361, NTT INDONESIA