A Catholic church in Cambodia has been “lost” but now is found, and is starting to be alive and well with the help of a missionary priest.
The St. Mary’s Church in the small village of Taom, about 60 kilometers southwest of Siem Reap, is believed to have been built in 1910. It was later forgotten during the years of unrest in both Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s.
The Catholic community in the village disappeared and the church was abandoned.
It was only in 2004 when village leaders rediscovered the church, which has since become a barn and a stable for farm animals, and returned to the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang.
Today, the church and the Christian community has been declared a missionary frontier where the Catholic faith has slowly blossomed again.
Father Franco Legnani, an Italian missionary priest who arrived in Cambodia in the 1990s and who has been tasked to minister to the people of the village of Taom, said “there really is nothing else” in the place.
In a report on AsiaNews, the priest said people knew of the existence of the church “but there was no road to reach it.”
The church can only be reached by traveling through a river. He said the people who rediscovered the church “walked through the rice fields and in the end they saw it.”
“It had become a stable,” said the priest. Today, the village can be accessed through a muddy road from the city.
“It must have been the seat of a very large Christian community before,” said Father Legnani.
He said that aside from the size of the structure, there were also records discovered in Paris showing that in 1938 there were at least 700 Christians living in the village.
“Then during the war of the 1970s, it was bombed by pro-American militias because [the village] was a community of Vietnamese,” said the priest.
“They regarded [the people in the village] indiscriminately as supporters of the Hanoi militias, who crossed Cambodia,” he said.
During the restoration of the church, the priest and the people in the village wanted one wall of the structure to be preserved with the bullet holes from the machine guns.
Father Legnani said they wanted to put a sign that says “This is the mother of the churches, but also the symbol of the suffering of our people.”
People have returned to Taom, navigating the river from Vietnam and then traveling up the entire Mekong.
“Others were certainly killed,” said the priest.
“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,” he said.
Father Legnani said that even before he arrived, the Catholic mission in Siem Reap have been working in the village.
“I started coming by motorbike regularly every week from the city,” he said.
The missionaries have opened a kindergarten, the only one in the area, and are helping young people through informal classes.
Father Legnani said he wanted to live in Taom “because there is a need for a permanent presence among the people” in a church that was once lost.