In Cambodia, Songvat and Tharin, today Sister Marie and Sister Teresa, are the first women to enter the religious life since the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge. A conversion that went hand in hand with the reconstruction of the country.
A Church that is reborn thanks to the preaching of the Gospel in the marketplace. This is how one could summarize the experience of Sister Marie and Sister Teresa. Converts to Christianity, they are the first two Cambodian nuns since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime led by the dictator Pol Pot, who between 1975 and 1979, was responsible for killing an estimated 1.5 million people. The country was shaken by this experience and for another decade, despite the progressive improvement of the situation, Cambodia remained a poor and unstable nation.
However, at the beginning of the 90s, there was something new in the air. Marie, whose name before her baptism was Ang Songvat, worked mornings as a secretary, and in the afternoon, she went to the Kompong Cham market where she worked as a seamstress. In the evening she attended evening school for her high school diploma. She did not manage to finish high school due to the armed guerrilla clashes that took place in some areas of the country.
It is in the market that she befriended a woman who – though she was not yet aware of it – would change her life. We are speaking of Bun Nath who sold fish together with her friend, Bun Tharin, and who, thanks to a French priest, had learned about Christianity before the missionaries were expelled in 1975, the year in which the Khmer Rouge took power.
Bun Nath was only a child when she frequented the home of Father André Lesouef, of the Paris Foreign Missions, who in 1968 was appointed first apostolic prefect of Kompong Cham, the local capital which is located 120 kilometres east of the national capital Phnom Penh.
At the time, the priest would welcome non-Christian children into his rectory and talk to them. Upon his return to Cambodia in 1992, all the works of the Catholic Church had been lost. Or so it seemed. Bun Nath, now an adult, wrote a letter to the seventy-year-old missionary, then living in the capital Phnom Penh. Father André not only managed to find her, but he baptized her. She was the first Christian in the revived Cambodian Catholic Church.
Songvat and Tharin first met on a motorcycle trip. Bun Nath had begun to recount her experience with Christianity at the market, but the question of what would later become of Songvat became more and more complex. So, Bun Nath asks Bun Tharin to accompany Songvat to Father André who was now assisted by two Thai nuns, Pelagie and Xavier. Both belonged to the congregation of the Lovers of the Cross Sisters, an order founded in Thailand by Father Lambert De la Motte in the 17th century.
Bun Tharin knew Father André by sight and through Bun Nath’s words, but she had never thought of converting to Christianity from Buddhism. She had finished middle school but then, due to her family’s economic difficulties, she had started working at the fish market, and only later was she able to attend a vocational school.
When Songvat met the French missionary priest, she did not actually find the answers she was looking for. Instead, she was greeted with a question: “Do you want to study the Word of God?” Father André asked.
After this meeting, the two women began their catechetical journey with the missionary, still separately. Between 1994 and 1996, when they were still under 30, they were baptized. In those years there were one, two or a maximum of four converts every year, but the Cambodian Church had begun to germinate again. Marie and Teresa were happy with their choice, but it was not a simple decision: “We were Buddhists by tradition, but I felt touched by the enlightenment of the Lord. Culture is something that you absorb from the outside, but the Word of God came to meet us along the way”, explains Sister Marie.
Due to Father André’s increasingly precarious health, Marie and Teresa continue their catechesis with the Thai nuns. “Their Khmer was rudimentary”, they said, “but our faith was determined and motivated, going beyond the formality of the lessons”.
At one point, Pelagie suggested that Marie teach sewing and writing at her home in the evenings to a group of girls who were not yet baptized. When Teresa also went to live with them, the two women began to think about the religious life. Bun Nath often spoke of the Vietnamese Sisters of Providence she had known before the Khmer Rouge, and she gladly shared memories of them. Here, too, there is an important cultural obstacle: “Our families would ask us: ‘Why don’t you get married and have children?’”, said Sister Teresa.
But Marie and Teresa had already decided to become part of the Lovers of the Cross Sisters. The first year of the postulancy was spent in the service of others and Father André, to be sure of their intentions, sent them to Phnom Penh to work with an NGO called New Humanity International. In 2002 they began the novitiate and in 2004 they made their first religious profession and were assigned to the mission in Prey Veng, where they managed some student houses for girls and courses of initiation into the Christian faith – more or less the same activities they still engage in today.
Songvat remained in Prey Veng, while Tharin lives in Stung Treng, in the north-east of Cambodia, with nine other professed sisters. Looking back on their lives, Sister Marie and Sister Teresa, who are now over 60 years old, recall that, after receiving baptism, they no longer performed the traditional religious rites at Buddhist pagoda festivals with their family. And they themselves did not understand why they were so different. “At the time we didn’t know how to answer our own questions”, they say, “but today we understand that the Word needed to be announced precisely in that particular context”. (Open Photo: St. John’s Catholic Church in Siem Reap, Cambodia) – (Alessandra De Poli/MM)