In 1990, Mother Teresa's nuns asked him to stay with them to celebrate Mass. A PIME missionary, as soon as he arrived he wrote: "The whole of Cambodia has been reduced to a forced labour camp". For 30 years he accompanied the rebirth of the small local Church.
Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - The Catholic Church of Cambodia is mourning its pioneer in the post Pol Pot era. Father Toni Vendramin, an Italian PIME missionary, who in 1990 was the first priest to return to the country after the reign of terror, died last night at the age of 78. He had been in the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital for a few weeks due to bacterial pneumonia.
Vendramin had been a missionary in Bangladesh for 15 years before leaving for Cambodia, just when the Khmer Rouge government had launched its first signs of opening up. "Mother Teresa's sisters had been invited by the government: they wanted to return permanently, but were looking for a priest to accompany them. They had met a French missionary, Fr Emile Destombes (the future Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, who died in 2016) who was there for two or three months on a cooperator's visa. He was joined by another Maryknoll missionary, Fr Tom Dunleavy. There were no other priests. The sisters told the government: we will go back to Cambodia, but we want a guarantee that we will have a priest with us to say Mass.
On 23rd November 1990, with four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, Fr Vendramin boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. "We arrived without a visa, but with a letter of invitation from Prime Minister Hun Sen; at the airport they didn't know what to do," Fr Toni recounted.
"The whole of Cambodia was reduced to a forced labour camp and the extermination of its own people, in the name of an aberrant and criminal ideology," the priest wrote a few days later in a letter to his friends.
The Cambodian government wanted the Missionaries of Charity to open a home for landmine victims, but the sisters did not feel able to take on such a task. Instead, they started to gather and care for the sick or the beggars who slept in the streets; then they took in abandoned children or those suffering from AIDS."
Vendramin recalled: "There were no churches, we had to celebrate Mass in private homes. At the end of 1990 we managed to have a dormitory of the minor seminary returned to us: that's where we celebrated our first Christmas, a very powerful and moving experience".
Yet their work was still marked by many restrictions: "I could not move beyond a radius of 20 kilometres from Phnom Penh", the religious explained. "It was only with the arrival of the United Nations for the 1993 elections that freedom of movement improved and it was possible to start reorganising the Church.
In recent years, Fr Vendramin had led the parish of St Peter, in the airport area. As long as the government allowed him to do so, he also visited the prison once a month to visit the inmates.
Taking stock of his 30 years in Cambodia last year he observed: "Coming here was a very profound experience for me. Everything has changed in Phnom Penh: where there were only two or three paved roads, there are now 40-storey skyscrapers built by the Chinese. But the wounds of the past remain, more or less open or hidden. As for the Catholic presence, in all the missions today there is a kindergarten, sometimes a primary school. Together with basic facilities, homes for the disabled, other social initiatives at both diocesan and national level. The city has grown, but this little Church of ours is also growing in small steps".