Ta Om, the 'rediscovered church' of Fr Legnani
by Giorgio Bernardelli

Abandoned among the rice fields during the war years and emptied of its Christians, today it has once again become a missionary frontier in the apostolic prefecture of Battambang. The PIME missionary says: "We wanted to preserve the machine-gun holes on one wall, a symbol of the suffering of our people".




Siem Reap (AsiaNews) - A church that had remained completely hidden for years, after the war had emptied it of its Christians. A church that was literally rediscovered among the rice fields a few years ago and is now alive once again. This is the story of the church of Ta Om, in northern Cambodia, which the PIME magazine "Mondo e Missione" describes as one of the most significant signs on the occasion of World Mission Day 2021.

Fr. Franco Legnani - one of the first missionaries to arrive in Cambodia in the nineties, after the tragic season of Pol Pot - has been serving the apostolic prefecture of Battambang, in the northern part of the country since 2019: "Basically I am in Siem Reap - he says - but I have been entrusted with the care of the communities around Ta Om, which are 75 kilometres from the city, in the middle of the rice fields. An area where there is really nothing else...'.

The rediscovered church is also located there: "They found it about 20 years ago," explains the PIME missionary. They knew of its existence, but there was no road to it because it was onlt accessibile by river. So they walked through the rice fields and finally saw it: it had become a stable".

The Ta Om church was built around 1910. "We can see it from the size of the building, but also from the statistics sent by the fathers of the Missions Etrangères de Paris, who in 1938 spoke of the presence of 700 Christians. Then, during the war in the seventies, it was bombed by pro-American militias because this was a community of Vietnamese. They considered them indiscriminately as supporters of the Hanoi militias, who were crossing into Cambodia. This is why, when we restored the church, we wanted one of the walls to still have the holes of machine-gun fire. It was meant to be a sign: this is the mother of churches, but also a symbol of the suffering of our people".

And the Christian community that lived in Ta Om in those years? "They managed to escape to a certain extent," replied the missionary. "They returned to Vietnam by navigating the river and then going up the Mekong, in what must have been an epic journey. Others were certainly killed. In fact, there is no one left of that Christian community today. There are four villages in the area, but they are all inhabited by Cambodians."

With them, the journey resumed. "Even before I arrived,' Legnani explains, 'the mission in Siem Reap had already rekindled Ta Om. I started to come on my motorbike regularly, every week, from the city: I stay with the children and the elderly who are in great need, because the young people are leaving to look for work in Thailand. We have opened a kindergarten, the only one in the area; for older children we offer informal education initiatives. In the last two years, however, Covid-19 has forced us to reduce all these activities a lot.

Starting from the riddled façade of a church: this is the story that Fr Legnani experienced from the beginning in Cambodia. "When I arrived in Phnom Penh in 1994," he recalls, "there was a great need to rebuild the country, even materially: canals, agricultural development, help to restart the universities. Then, however, I began to hear a clearer and clearer cry: the shreds of Christian communities scattered during the years of the Khmer Rouge needed someone to be with them."

Before the present church of Ta Om, Father Legnani served many other communities: the villages of Kampong Thom and Chnok Tru; then the community of Kampong Chhnang, made up mainly of Vietnamese who live a precarious life on boats because in Cambodia they have no title to the land. Today he has two dreams in his heart: "The most immediate one," he says, "is to be able to move permanently to Ta Om, because we need a permanent presence among these people. But I also have another dream," he confides, "called Oddar Meanchey, the northernmost province of Cambodia, right on the border with Thailand. It is a very beautiful area, I have visited it several times; it is also where there are still more mines... There has never been a presence of the Cambodian Church there, it would mean starting from scratch."