Up Front and Personal

Catholic Mission Thrives In Buddhist Cambodia

By Virginia Jama

At 5:30 a.m., the tuk-tuk wagon pulled up in front of Chhaya Apartments in Battambang, Cambodia. 

The night man got out of bed and unlocked the front door. It was pitch-dark. DJ, the driver, and his little son, Ceemy, waited for me to climb in. 

DJ turned on his motorcycle lights and headed for the Catholic Prefecture on the other side of the Sangker River.

Cambodia, officially a Buddhist country, reopened free Catholic worship in the 1990s. The previous week we had traveled to the mission, which dates back to 1749, and asked for Mass times.

We had settled on the 6 a.m. service. We learned that the bishop, a hero from the Khmer Rouge-era refugee camps in Thailand, would only be there on Monday nights, so we would not get to meet him. 

That morning we traveled around the streets until we found the best bridge and quickly arrived at the compound. When we arrived, we saw only one other vehicle, a large white SUV, parked near the church.

There was a rack outside for shoes, so I removed mine before I went in, as is the custom. We were allowed in, and as we settled into our seats, I heard chanting from outside the walls.

I found a chair near a pillar toward the back. A man in a bright red shirt went onto the altar and lit candles, and put some books on nearby stands. He went away behind the altar.

Soon 20 school girls in orange shirts and modest navy skirts filed in and took places on the 

floor in front of me. Children in blue shirts sat in neat rows on the other side. Some adults and four sisters in simple gray habits joined them. 

By 6:10, a priest in vestments came out barefoot, sat down by a stand, and started Mass. Everything about the liturgy was familiar, but spoken in the Khmer language. The priest gave a homily, and I had a feeling that he was not from Cambodia.

The children sang beautifully with loud harmony. The younger nuns knelt on the floor and then got up for Communion. A man in a wheelchair took Communion. There was more a cappella singing.

As the sun rose, I peeked out the window and saw a lovely grotto dedicated to Mother Mary. After Mass, the girls in the orange shirts piled onto a double tuk-tuk, presumably to go to school and breakfast. 

They looked happy. I spoke to one of the nuns, Sister Shanty Pulickal, from the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco. They run girls’ schools in Southeast Asia and are well known. 

She asked, “Would you like to meet the priest?” 

She took me outside, where, on the sidewalk, stood the man in the bright red shirt. He was the priest, Father Rajat Hassa Purti, from Jharkhand, India. He told me that he had been in Cambodia for 20 years and invited me to their Lenten activities. 

It was definitely worth the time and effort to travel across the river before dawn. On my first visit to the church, I’d seen a dozen people, who appeared to be from outside Cambodia, gathered in a prayer circle. 

One of the buildings in the garden-filled compound was named after Archbishop Oscar Romero. Another is a library and vocational center. The reception center was being renovated from top to bottom.

Although in my two-month educational sojourn in Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, I did not get to meet the bishop, I was glad to meet some of the other people who keep the mission alive.

Virginia Jama is a retired NYC teacher who has lived and traveled in Africa. She has been a member of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in Jamaica for over 40 years. Jama went to Cambodia recently on an invitation from Dewey International University.