A slice of history crumbling away
September 19, 2007, 2:45 am
Filed under: History

A slice of history crumbling away

By Moeun Chhean Nariddh

THE only one of the six churches in Phnom Penh which survived the Khmer Rouge’s reign of destruction is now facing eventual collapse due to old age.

The Chapel of the Sisters of Providence Hospice, on the riverfront near the Phnom Penh Port, has had a diverse history since 1979 – it’s been a school, a video house, a Tae Kwan Do training ground and a hostel for orphans.

But its last inhabitants decided to abandon the old building after pieces of paste and cement began falling fall down every time there was heavy rain or strong wind.

According to the book Phnom Penh Then and Now by Frenchman Michel Igout, the church was built almost 100 years ago as part of L’École des Soeurs de la Providence. It was a place for worship for the Christian nuns who ran the school, which was reserved only for orphans.

Ngin Sokravar, the current manager of the neighboring Orphanage Kolab Ti Muoy, says the Lon Nol regime put the whole compound under government control. The church continued as a Ministry of Education school, mainly serving female students, until the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.

Nobody knows how the church survived the anti-religious communist regime during their three years, eight months and 20 days’ reign.

But orphans who used to live there say they found a few coffins in the church when they came in after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. They suggest the Khmer Rouge might have used it for keeping the bodies of dead soldiers before burying them, and therefore the church was spared.

When the Vietnam-backed communists came to power in 1979, soldiers brought about 20 street kids to live in the church, and the Orphanage Kolab Ti Muoy was simultaneously opened.

In mid-1980s, the church was divided into four classrooms, with walls of straw, while students waited for the construction of the Wat Phnom School nearby. Orphans who studied at the church say atmosphere was good but very much communal – sometimes it was hard to concentrate for the noises from the other classrooms coming through the walls.

When the Wat Phnom school was completed, the church was not allowed a rest. From being a building of education and worship, it was turned into a video parlor to help raise money for the school in 1987.

It soon became a hit. While the state-run cinemas were screening politically-correct Soviet or Vietnamese fare, the new video parlor quenched the overwhelming thirst of locals for action-packed, non-revolutionary films.

Orphans say they can remember the chairs and benches in the church packed daily with fans, and others peeping through the windows. Bruce Lee movies were a favorite.

Sadly, the students turned out to be not the best of business people, and the video parlor fell victim to corruption of sorts: the orphans whose job it was to sell tickets at the door let too many of their poor friends in for free. The business went bankrupt a few months shy of its first anniversary.

But Bruce Lee’s kicks, punches and chops had made an impression. Many orphans soon began boycotting their homework, preferring to learn and imitate the film star’s martial arts.

And so the church became a Tae Kwan Do training room for almost another year before the students got bored with kicking and punching.

Finally, the church was handed over to the Orphanage Kolab Ti Muoy to accommodate orphans who had to move from an adjacent collapsing orphanage building.

About 30 young orphans grew up in the church, living in it for nearly 10 years until recently, when it began falling to pieces and leaking in the rain.

They moved to another building – the former L’École des Soeurs de la Providence kitchen – but today they still fondly remember their time in the church.

“It’s peaceful and comfortable.” said Lim Chantheth, a veteran who studied in the church and later practiced Tae Kwan Do there.

“I felt it was like sleeping in a huge villa with air conditioners,” added another former church-mate, Thou Kosal.

The history of the church, like that of Cambodia, includes bad as well as good. The orphans remember much of it.

For instance, they recall the day in the late 1980s when a Vietnamese man who worked at a nearby garage hung himself from a truck just outside the church’s entrance. For the orphans, fear loomed large because of this bad omen. They decided to invite a Buddhist monk to come to pray and wrap the magic string yon around the death site, to banish the spirit of the dead from haunting them.

Unfortunately, there was a storm and strong wind and rain snapped the string exactly seven nights later. Panic spread through the church as an orphan raced through it shouting: “The yon is broken- run!”

According to local belief, the ghosts of dead people are most powerful on the seventh night after their death. The 30 teenage boys living in the church fled in minutes, not returning for several days, after they had calmed their fears.

They fled again in 1992 when Japanese engineers blew up the broken base of the Chrouy Changvar Bridge to clear the way for reconstruction. The blast caused the church to shake, dust and cement falling from the roof, and the orphans thought it would crash down on their heads.

They returned again when they realized the church would stay standing, but today only a few people live in one or two corners of the building. A passing truck is enough to make the church tremble, and most people moved out after several orphans had dreams about the church collapsing.

Now, the church is just a shell. The four main doors have been taken away, along with most the windows. Only the slogans and graffiti on its walls hint at its former past.

“War is a rude reminder,” “Life is struggle”, “A man with no knowledge is like a boat with no rudder”, “Thinking of girls means short education” and “Our biggest enemy is laziness,” are among the messages on the walls to its former inhabitants.

Most prominent, just left of the front door, are a couple of communist slogans from the days of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea: “The Socialist youth must love their society” and “The new youth are always brave”.

Elsewhere are scrawled words in Khmer, Russian, French, Thai and English, testimony of orphans’ attempts to learn different languages.

There are also many drawings, such as a picture of a handsome footballer about to kick a ball, two boxers watching him from another wall. In front of the boxers, a painted guitar player strums away. All are oblivious to the spider webs and bats beginning to take over the church, and the rain that seeps in through the battered roof.

Ngin Sokravar, the orphanage manager, said he had written to the Phnom Penh Municipality to seek their advice on whether to knock the church down. But he hasn’t heard anything back yet.

According to him, the church is the last old building on the site that remains. Three other school buildings of the same age in the compound were knocked down between 1989-92.

Without rescue action, the church will join their fate, leaving behind only the memories of those who used to call it their home.

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 5/22, October 31 – November 14, 1996
© Michael Hayes, 2000. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief
http://www.PhnomPenhPost.com – Any comments on the website to
Webmaster

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I read your article “A piece of history crumbling away” and I am sad!
I would like have a follow up of this article if possible! I lived in that place before Lon Nol/Polpot time… I used to take care of the orphans….What had happened to that place now? Thanks for any info

Comment by Ly Bopha

Dear Bong Bopha,

The church has now been converted into a living place for orphans from the Khmer Rouge. They have divided the church into small brick rooms as many of these former orphans now have their own families. I also miss this place. I want to go back and do another story.

You can write to me via my email address: mcnariddh@yahoo.com

Best wishes,

Nariddh

Comment by chhimborom




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