06/03/2022, 17.17
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A church for the city of Kampot in Cambodia

by Giorgio Bernardelli

Dedicated to St Augustine, the church will be consecrated tomorrow by the Apostolic Vicar Olivier Schmitthaeusler. For Fr Gianluca Tavola, the local parish priest, it “marks the community’s coming of age” where no Catholic dwelled 20 years ago. Some 200 children go to the local school. On Sundays, both local Cambodians and Vietnamese migrants attend Mass.

Kampot (AsiaNews) – In a place where no Catholic dwelled 20 years ago, now stands a well recognisable church. For the small Catholic community in Kampot, this is an important moment.

Today, eve of Pentecost, the Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, will consecrate the church of St Augustine in a place he knows very well.

The town of Kampot is located in southern Cambodia near the border with Vietnam off the Gulf of Siam. It is here that some 20 years ago, as a missionary sent by the Missions etrangères de Paris, Bishop Schmitthaeusler settled in a house along with another priest from the vicariate.

Soon the house became a hostel for kids from Kep province coming to the town to study. That initial friendship saw the birth of a small Christian community that until today could only celebrate the Eucharist in one wing of the house.

"The church of St Augustine can accommodate no more than 150 worshippers, but it marks the community’s coming of age,” said the current parish priest, Fr Gianluca Tavola, a PIME missionary from Italy who arrived in Kampot in 2009.

“Its physical presence is a way of saying to everyone: We are a small community, we are young community, but we are here too.”

Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country. Kampot’s “pastoral area” is home to about 600,000 people, and constitutes one of the nine regions that make up the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh.

Overall, local Catholics number just over 300. They are a small seed, but one that is germinating in an area undergoing deep change as a result of the growing tourist industry on the coast.

The church of St Augustine is named after “a young convert like so many of our Christians,” Fr Tavola said, and will become the heart of everything involving the community.

The local pastoral centre now includes a new building with a kindergarten for children aged three to six and an elementary school up to Grade sixth with some 200 pupils, mostly from non-Christian families.

Because of the latest lockdown, opening events were delayed a bit. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facility will be cut on 17 June.

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for the opening on 3 July of the Charity House, near another church in Chum Kirì, a village located some 50 kilometres from Kampot.

This facility, which was built with the support of the PIME Foundation, has been up and running since January, caring for sick people and disabled children, including those suffering with mental issues, followed by an ad hoc service provided by Maryknoll missionaries.

Interestingly, the congregation of the new church is Kampot draws not only “the small group of Khmer Catholics, but also three Vietnamese Catholic families who have come here to work,” Fr Tavola noted.

“While the Cambodians are mostly young people, who have come to the faith in recent years and are still learning the ropes of the Christian life, the group of Vietnamese have a more solid faith behind them,” the clergyman explained.

“Put next to each other,” he added, “they are more or less the same number, well disposed towards one other, despite the wounds of recent history. They gladly help each other, and this is a beautiful sign for everyone.”

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