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Edward Willis

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Catedral de Dili (Cathedral) – opening 1937 [1]

“Arriving at the front door of Portuguese Timor on the morning of 17 December, the Soerabaja waited outside Dili, a tiny harbourside settlement dominated by an enormous white stucco cathedral, a grand symbol of the duopoly of colonialism and Catholicism in a land of tribal animists.  The cathedral itself was overshadowed by mountains that rose sharply just over a kilometre behind the town”. [2]

Callinan described the cathedral as he saw it in January 1942:

“The only other notable building in the town was the Cathedral – a new building built with the aid of the church in Macau.  It was reputed to have cost a million patacas, or almost a hundred and sixty thousand pounds.  It was a dazzling white building with twin towers, and a brilliant red and blue leadlight window behind the high altar.

One Sunday I went down to Dili to Mass in the fine Cathedral.  The Father Superior usually gave, at the completion of the Mass, what sounded to me like an informal talk to the natives present.  He would stand amidst the seats at the back of the Cathedral, and moving slowly amongst them, speak quietly and fluently in Tetum; his voice carried well, and every word was distinct.  It sounded simple and sincere, and there was not a move from any native present whilst he was preaching”. [3]

According to another account:

“The cathedral was a grand building with two tall spires on either side of its many windowed façade in the centre of Dili.  Its bells could be heard all over town”. [4]

“To the south of the Customs there was the Cathedral with two towers and an imposing presence due to its size.  The facades were gently ornated, although the typological variety of arches was able to provide visual complexity.  It was inaugurated in 1937, and for its construction in 1933, the previous parish church built between 1876 and 1877 had to be demolished”. [5]


Ruined Cathedral, Portuguese Timor (c. 1947) - Charles Bush [6]


“General Douglas MacArthur had taken a personal interest in the Timor campaign ever since April 1942, when he overruled General Blamey and ordered that the No. 2 Australian Independent Company (2AIC) be kept there to continue prosecuting guerilla war.  When things started turning for the worse towards the latter part of the year, MacArthur got involved again by authorising an all-out bombing campaign on the capital Dili, and on key centres throughout the island.  So committed was MacArthur to seeing his personal war in Timor succeed that he committed US air power to the conflict, even though the skies above Timor were becoming increasingly menacing for bombers without fighter support”.


“On the third run over Dili, MacArthur’s mission really found its mark.  At 5.30 p.m. on 1 November six B-26 bombers hit strategic targets near the waterfront. [8] Many bombs fell on the town but some hit the jetty, starting fires that culminated in a vivid flash and a huge explosion around midnight.  The fires continued to burn throughout the night.  The No. 4 Australian Independent Company (4AIC) men who had now returned to their OP over Dili counted more than 60 bombs in all in this first raid. [9] The following day, nine B-26s were reported from C and B Platoon positions as they approached Dili at around 8 a.m.  Most of the bombs were dropped in between the cathedral and the Chinese shops, and had little effect.  The bombers were later seen from Company HQ, located near the south coast, with two Zeros chasing after them.  At headquarters they tuned into the radio frequency of the bombers and heard one pilot telling the other, ‘Slow down,’ Matthew, I can’t keep up with you.’  All of the bombers returned safely to their base south of Darwin.

In the early hours of 3 November, the RAAF’s 2 Squadron joined the B-26s in a total of five raids on Dili, culminating in an attack by nine B-26s at around 8 a.m. [10] The daylight attack did not have a military target such as an ammunition dump or fuel store, but an unmistakeable civilian target, the cathedral in the centre of town.  The ornate cathedral, with its twin bell towers, stood more than four storeys tall and construction had only been completed five years earlier.  Other cathedrals around the world survived the war, most notably Cologne Cathedral in Germany, which was spared because Allied bomber pilots relied on it for navigation.  The 4AIC Company troops sealed the fate of the biggest structure in the colony when they reported from their OP rumours that it was being used to assemble fighter planes.  The 4AIC men didn’t verify the information, and it conflicted with a report in September by the 2AIC Company, which said that some of the 3,000 Japanese troops in Dili were billeted in the cathedral.  However, the men at the OP passed the information onto their Company HQ which then sent it on to Darwin.  The bombing was observed by several soldiers, including the 4AIC commanding officer Major Walker. [11] One of the soldiers at the OP who saw the bombs hit the building, Sergeant Bill Gibbs, said they ‘got a kick’ out of seeing the grand edifice go down.  Gibbs said ‘rightly or wrongly’ the OP’s intelligence told them that the cathedral was being used for military purposes.  Gibbs was looking through binoculars when the raid came and he saw two bomb bursts, one through the side wall and a second through the roof.  ‘We were very pleased about this.  It was the first sign that our efforts were being taken notice of by our side.’ [12]


Bombing the cathedral might not have been the best way to win the support of the Portuguese, who had built it, but the Australian soldiers thought the campaign in general had a good effect on Timorese support for their cause.  A 4 November message to Darwin said: ‘The natives were very impressed with the recent Allied bombing activity.’ [13] Requests for bombing came from all over Portuguese Timor now that the USAAF had joined in …”.


Dili, Portuguese Timor. 1946-01-20.  The bomb damaged Cathedral.  (Photographer Sgt K.B. Davis) [14]

At war’s end the unroofed shell of the cathedral building still dominated the ruins of the town’s bombed out centre.  Symbolically, the Portuguese Governor insisted that the ceremony acknowledging Australia’s role in liberating Portuguese Timor was performed in the open space in front of the cathedral on September 24 1945.  To reinforce the authority of its re-established control of the colony, the administration re-purposed the prime space occupied by the cathedral to build the more expansive but lower rising Palácio do Governo that resides on the site today.  The stones of the cathedral were used to build a temporary pier on the nearby harbour front. [15]


Driving in a westerly direction from the Dili city centre along the Av. Mouzinho de Albuquerque brings visitors to the landmark Catedral da Imaculada Conceição (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception).  This contemporarily designed and attractive building was constructed by the Indonesian government, completed in 1988 and inaugurated by President Suharto during a brief visit to Dili in November of that year.  Aditjondro cites construction of the cathedral as an example of a third type of “symbolic violence” the Indonesian government inflicted on the Timorese people; that of reminding “them of how good the Indonesian state has been to the Catholic Church of East Timor”. [16] Pope John Paul II consecrated the cathedral during his similarly fleeting visit to Dili in October of the following year.


Old cathedral location in relation to new cathedral

This new cathedral was a belated replacement for the first cathedral destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII that was located closer to the waterfront on the site of the current Palácio do Governo (Palace of the Government). [17]

Like the Christo Rei statue, little expense was spared by the Indonesians in constructing the new cathedral.  It has been placed within a spacious walled and well-drained compound with landscaped surrounds that vary in condition through cycles of neglect and rehabilitation.  It is also twin-towered and white-rendered with the towers being curiously offset on opposite sides of the building.  The cavernous interior can accommodate a large congregation; it is reported over 2,000 people attended a mass of thanksgiving and forgiveness after the recovery of President Jose Ramos-Horta when he returned to Dili following treatment for his wounds in Darwin in April 2008. [18]

The Timorese people have embraced this church as their own despite its provenance as another visitor observed:

“Yet, visit Dili Cathedral on a Sunday morning and it's a very different story.  From 7.30am crowds flock to mass and by the time we arrive at a quarter to eight we can barely get in the door.  The pews are packed.  Those who arrive late have to perch on the very edges of their seats.  The stairwells are full; some people poke their heads around the main doorway; others sit on the floor.  The sea of heads seems to go on and on into the distance.

Like the Jesus statue, Dili cathedral could do with a lick of paint.  Most of the light bulbs which make up the rudimentary chandeliers have blown, casting a dim light over the priest.  Some of the pale blue ceiling panels are starting to peel off, while others are stained with damp.  The stations of the cross are so modest you can barely make them out.

But none of this deters the congregation.  They have clearly taken care to dress in their Sunday best.  Their shirts are clean and ironed.  Their hair is washed and brushed.  They wear sturdy, neat shoes.  And they listen, many intently, to the service”. [19]


Catedral da Imaculada Conceição (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - 31st July 2008


[1]    Património arquitetónico de origem Portuguesa de Díli = Architectural heritage of Portuguese origins of Dili / editors Eugénio Sarmento, Flávio Miranda [and] Nuno Vasco Oliveira. - Dili: Secretária de Estado da Arte e Cultura, 2015 : 28.
[2]    Paul Cleary. - The men who came out of the ground : a gripping account of Australia's first commando campaign : Timor 1942. - Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2010: 30.
[3]    Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company : the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. - Richmond, Vic. : Heinemann, 1984: 14-15, 31.
[4]    Rowena Lennox. - Fighting spirit of East Timor: the life of Martinho Da Costa Lopes. – Sydney: Pluto Press Australia, 2000: 28.
[5]    Património arquitetónico de origem Portuguesa de Díli: 28.
[6]    Charles Bush / Portugese Timor inscribed in pen and ink on reverse of cardboard c. pasted into reverse of cardboard: "RUINED ROMAN CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL / DILLI – PORTUGESE TIMOR" / Painted from a sketch made whilst / on tour of duty as official war artist / 1945. / Charles Bush / 3 Napier Street. / Essendon, Victoria. / (Exhibited in the Minnie Crouch / watercolour competition. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/26985/
[7]    The following text has been adapted from Cleary, The men who came out of the ground : 239, 242-244.
[8]    Martin B-26B Marauders of the US 2nd Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group. https://www.ozatwar.com/ozcrashes/nt142.htm
[9]    4AIC war diary, September–December 1942, AWM52 25/3/4.  The 2AIC War Diary points out that many bombs also hit the town and the raid was comprised of six planes.  Raid by eight bombers on 1 November, in 2AIC war diary, AWM52 25/3/2; AWM64 ORMF 0188, 13 Squadron.
[10]    4AIC war diary, September–December 1942, AWM52 25/3/4.  The 2AIC War Diary only mentions one raid at 8 a.m. by US bombers.  The difference could be explained by the fact the 4AIC was operating the observation post.  In both war diaries the planes are referred to as Boston bombers, but in fact they were B-26s.
[11]    Comment inserted by Walker into 2AIC war diary on 4 November: “I personally observed hit on church from OP.  Approximately 1/3 of roof appeared to be blown away.  Major Walker”.
[12]    Paul Cleary interview with Bill Gibbs, Queanbeyan, October 2007.
[13]    Cable by Major-General F.W. Berryman, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Allied Landforces SWPA, 21 November 1942.
[14]   https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C221108
[15]    Património arquitetónico de origem Portuguesa de Díli: 28.
[16]    George J. Aditjondro “Ninjas, nanggalas, monuments and Mossad manuals: an anthropology of Indonesian state terror in East Timor” in Death squad: the anthropology of state terror / edited by Jeffrey A. Sluka. – Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000: 179.
[17]    “Dili: circuito urbano 1” pascal.iseg.utl.pt/~cesa/dili_urbano.pdf
[18]    “President's Recovery Spurs Prayer of Gratitude” http://www.ucanews.com/2008/04/23/presidents-recovery-spurs-prayer-of-gratitude/
[19]    Jo Barrett “Keep the Faith” post September 8, 2008 East Timor who cares? http://easttimorwhocares.wordpress.com/

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