I came to Cambodia to work with deaf people and that is my main job, but because Maryknoll priests are native English speakers, the bishop asked Maryknoll Cambodia to be responsible for the English-speaking Catholic community in Phnom Penh. Soon after arriving, I became part of the rotation for the one weekend Mass we had every Saturday evening at 5 p.m.
A Maryknoll priest, Father Tom Dunleavy, was the first priest back in the kingdom after the Pol Pot era, and he started having Mass in his room in the one hotel where all the foreigners were required to stay. As the group grew, they moved to the Maryknoll office, then to a school classroom, and when I arrived the Saturday Mass had moved to the Russian Cultural Center. Soon we moved to a larger auditorium, and then we started a second Mass on Sunday mornings, borrowing a hall in an empty building at St. Joseph Church in Phnom Penh.
Before the government stopped all religious services in March 2020 because of the pandemic, we had approximately 340 people coming to worship on Saturday and 240 on Sunday morning. We were also anticipating starting a second Mass on Sunday morning as our congregation continued to grow.
We are a congregation of about 800 persons, and at the last count they came from 56 countries. Most of our community are young professionals working in embassies and non-government organizations or working here to support their families back home. Many in the community are teachers in the international schools. Others have set up import-export businesses, buying goods in Vietnam or Thailand and shipping them to various African nations.
We don’t have many older people in our church and we also don’t have as many children as a usual parish in the United States. Our community members are often the ones sent by the family to earn money to support the grandparents and the children in the home country. Too often, the husband or wife is alone in Cambodia working to support the rest of the family.
Many of our parishioners make tremendous sacrifices being separated from spouses and children for many years, getting home once a year if they are lucky. In that context the parish community becomes very important. All of us, meeting regularly week after week, become the substitute for the family left behind.
It is in the church community that single individuals or married people without their spouses can find support, friendship and assistance when needed. Parish community here is much more than just fulfilling an obligation “to go to Mass on Sunday.”
Our community has many challenges. We are the largest and most active parish in the whole country. And we have no staff. We have volunteer religious education teachers, an active St. Vincent de Paul Society and lectors and eucharistic ministers at Mass, but we don’t have any of the support staff like a secretary and formation leaders and others that we really need.
Another challenge is the rotating nature of our community. So many parishioners are on two- or three-year contracts, and so we have constant arrivals and departures. Probably one fourth of our community turns over each year. We are constantly recruiting and training new ministers for Mass.
Our parish has its problems but we also have a wonderful spirit. There is a felt need to be with the community and that is a wonderful dynamic to have. Cambodia can be a difficult place to be, but the parish community makes it a kinder, gentler place to be.
Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and is also pastor of the English-speaking parish there.