Atambua diocese covers 5,177 square kilometers in East Nusa Tenggara province and borders Timor Leste (East Timor). Atambua town, the adninistrative seat of Belu district, lies 2,000 kilometers east of Jakarta.
Most of the people (89%) of the two districts it serves — Belu and North Central Timor — are farmers, and 75 percent of the population did not go beyond junior high school. Most of the Catholics were baptized when they were children.
Previously the diocese territory covered all of West Timor, the Indonesian western part of Timor island, but in 1967 Kupang archdiocese was created from its territory.
Catholicism was first introduced to the people of Timor in the 16th century by Portuguese missioners who traveled with Portuguese traders, serving the traders' spiritual needs and preaching the Gospel to the people they met.
In 1556, Dominican Father Antonio Taveira baptized around 5,000 people in Atapupu, on the northern coast of Timor island. This area is now a parish of Atambua diocese. The priest came from Lifao in Oecusse, a coastal enclave in western Timor that belongs to Timor Leste, where the Portuguese had built a fortress. These baptisms in Atapupu, 25 kilometetrs north of Atambua. marked the beginnings of Catholicism in Timor.
For decades, the Portuguese developed trade between Timor and Macau. Besides the fortress in Lifao, they also built fortresses at Kupang and at Loyahong, on Solor Island, nearer to Flores, to protect this trade. Lohayong became the base for Catholic missionary priests to pay regular pastoral visits to Catholics in Timor until the Dutvh captured it in 1613. The Portuguese fortress in Kupang fell into Dutch hands in 1653.
Thereafter, pastoral ministry to Catholics in Timor and Flores was inadequate due to the lack of priests and the distance between Batavia (the Dutch colonial capital, now Jakarta), where the Catholic Church mission was based, and Timor and Flores.
Following a treaty between the Netherlands and Portugal, signed in Lisbon on April 20, 1859, the Portuguese withdrew from Atambua/Kupang to East Timor, but the Dutch agreed to provide religious care to local Catholics, as the Portuguese government requested.
Three Dutch missionary priests from Batavia — diocesan Fathers Caspar de Hesselle, Yan Sanders and Caspar Franssen — visited Catholics in Atambua and Atapupu, as well as in Dili, Timor Leste.
In 1860, Jesuit Father Gregor Metz started visiting West Timor to provide pastoral care to Catholics. The number of Catholics in Atapupu and Fialaran (now Lahurus parish) were growing when Jesuit, Father H. Dijkman took over this mission between 1871 and 1875.
Jesuit Father Jacobus Kraaijvanger, who succeeded Father Dijkman, made regular visits from Larantuka, East Flores, to Catholics in Timor between 1879 and 1883. During his pastoral visits, he was assisted by two laymen — Atok, 30, from Lahurus, and Fettor Seran from Atapupu.
Atok, a graduate of a Malay school, served as Father Kraaijvanger's interpreter. The priest wanted to learn Tetum, the main dialect of the people in Belu, so he took Atok to Larantuka in 1880 to help with this, as preparation for the establishment of permanent mission station in Timor. Father Kraaijvanger baptized Atok in Larantuka on April 26, 1881. The layman, who received the baptismal name Josef, furthered his educxation in Larantuka and learned more about Catholicism, allowing him to return and serve as the catechist in Lahurus.
In 1882, Atok, whom local people called "Atok Serani" (Atok the Nazarene) after his baptism, commenced his long career as catechist. One of his great grandsons, who was named Atok after him, was ordained priest in 1969. A great-great grandson, Stefanus Mau, was ordained a priest in 1995.
On April 23, 1883, Atapupu was established as the center of mission activity, thus inaugurating the formal presence of the Catholic Church in Timor, and on Aug. 1 that year, Father Kraaijvanger and a Jesuit brother took up residence at the mission.
The two missioners began by building a church and then a school to educate local youngsters. The Church gradually developed in Atapupu.
In December 1886, Jesuit Father Augustinus H.M. de Kuijper arrived in Lahurus, 25 kilometers east of Atambua, to serve the Catholics there. He and Jesuit Brother Johanes Hansates started the Lahurus mission station and began to build a church. On July 16, 1889, they opened schools for Timorese children.Lahurus, located on the slopes of Mount Lakaan, has mild temperatures, and in time became the center of Catholic mission in Timor.
The Jesuits handed over pastoral care of the Church in Timor to Divine Word priests in 1913. In that same year, the Holy See established the Apostolic Prefecture of the Lesser Sunda Islands, which covered West Timor and the islands of Flores, Sumba, Sumbawa, Lombok and Bali. It was based in Ndona, Ende, on Flores. Divine Word Father Petrus Noyen, then the parish priest of Lahurus, was appointed the first apostolic prefect.
The Apostolic Vicariate of West Timor became was erected on May 25, 1936, with Divine Word Father Jacobus Pessers as its first apostolic vicar. He was ordained a bishop on June 16, 1937. Atambua became the center of the apostolic vicariate. Catholics numbered about 42,000 in West Timor, served by 19 Divine Word priests, three brothers, and 12 Servants of the Holy Spirit sisters.
On Jan. 28, 1941, the Catholic Church in Timor was blessed with the ordination of its first son, Father Gabriel Manek, who later became apostolic vicar of Larantuka and then archbishop of Ende. He was born in Lahurus.
The name of the vicariate waschanged to Atambus in 1948, and two years later, on Sept 8, 1950, it established its minor seminary in Lalian, 9 kilometers south of Atambua. In 1957, the Divine Word Society Timor region set up the St. Joseph Formation House to train Timorese youths who wanted to become Religious brothers.
Atambua became a diocese on Jan. 3, 1961. Its first diocesan priest was ordained five years later. On Aug. 15, 1967, Atambua Diocese was divided in two, one of the halves becoming Kupang Diocese, which was elevated to an archdiocese in 1989.