EASTER IN LESSER SUNDA ISLANDS (3) – Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

In front of me lies the sea. And islands, those of Adonara and Solor, where the Portuguese from the 16th century left fortifications, churches, wells and many pieces of artillery. Behind, a mantle of green extends to the volcanic cone of the Ile Mandiri; to the south, some adolescents sit among plastic bottles in semi-destroyed space where the beach once was. There, legend says, a statue of the Lady of the Rosary was found, and in whose stand the words Mater Dolorosa were engraved. The connection that existed between the oratories of the sacred road and the sea simply disappeared. Which means that  one of the cultural features of the “holy city” of Larantuca, spiritual center of Flores Island also disappeared.

“We no longer have beaches,” complained Dominic, a young architect responsible for the recovery of the churches and chapels of this city of a few tens of thousands inhabitants.

Dominic explained then the slaughter of ancestral trees near the cathedral of Larantuca. “I had to do it because the roots would damage the structure we built to accommodate the people attending Mass outside the church. There are many, you will see,” he said, trying to justify the unjustifiable.

It was possible to read the name “Joam Baptist” on one side of a small bell eaten by the verdigris that stands on the top of a tower in front of the cathedral.

The main theme of the conversation was, however, the current bupati, which – by the way – had a Portuguese name. The interest in bearing Portuguese surnames in Flores resembles what we witnessed in the novels of Eça de Queiroz with the titles of count and duke. It’s a matter of prestige. That bupati – whose name I had seen in the pages of the newspaper Flores Pos and would return to see in the ones of the Kupang Pos – in fact, did not have the sympathy of the inhabitants of the village. These guaranteed that “in the time of bupati Monteiro” things worked. But that was more than 70 years ago. “The activities of the present bupati are not very clear,” Dominic added. “It represents very well the rot that the system suffers.” The architect also accused the local administrator of wanting to appropriate the title of rajah of Larantuca. But there were other candidates, as was the case of a certain De Rosario, immortalized in an oil painting hanging in the lobby of the uncharacteristic Hotel Tresnos, next to the pension Rullies.

Unfortunately, it seemed that it was not only the trees that have been decimated in the churchyard: the garbage dump and the open-air sewers, the only evils in Larantuca.

I was able to confirm the degradation of Larantuca during a bicycle ride along the coast to the small pebble beach of Wirah, from where one can see Vure, a Christian enclave on the neighboring island of Adonara. It was a ride along a mangrove during the low tide, and, despite the intense heat, I felt little or no desire to dive, given the amount of garbage accumulated everywhere.

I made a detour to the beach of Kota where lies the chapel Tua Meninu. It has a statue of Jesus as a boy, much venerated by the population, that goes out in a maritime procession on Good Friday, a secular tradition that has its origin in Portugal’s maritime and fluvial processions.

Throughout the Holy Week in Larantuca, it is imperative to fulfill a list of ceremonies and, therefore, it is necessary to paint, to arrange and to clean the places of worship. At this time of year all hotels and pensions are sold out. And it is very difficult, except in the very modest Sedernham gyest house, to get a room for less than 80,000 rupees. Curiously, the lodgings and restaurants are almost all owned by Muslims or Protestants, although they constitute small communities. The Catholic community is more involved in the public administration and business in general. It is common in Flores to see families “divided” by religion. A “division” which, however, does not constitute an obstacle to peaceful and exemplary coexistence.

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