Wednesday, September 15, 2010
St Michael Church of Sihanoukville is almost completely unique amongst Catholic churches in Cambodia. Under Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979, religion was outlawed and churches in particular were targeted for destruction, both as religious structures and as symbols of the bourgeois West. Most churches, including the grand Cathedral in Phnom Penh, were leveled. Only two of Cambodia's 73 churches survived the Khmer Rouge period and St. Michael of Sihanoukville was one of those two, the other being Carmelite Chapel in Phnom Penh.
I first visited St Michael Church back in 1995, trying to gather some information on the place, just as a matter of curiosity. There I met an accommodating old priest who tried to answer my questions, though it took some significant linguistic gymnastics to do it.
On that first visit, when I arrived the gates were open but the church closed and the grounds seemingly deserted. Uninvited, I wandered about taking photos until a couple of nicely dressed kids walked up and with very limited English asked if I wanted to meet "Ta." 'Ta' is a Khmer honorific for a respected elder person, and though I couldn't be certain who they were talking about, it sounded like a step in the right direction. I first apologized for my poor Khmer and then asked if I might please meet ‘Ta.’
The kids disappeared and a few minutes later an old white man emerged from a nearby house, an ancient man really, perhaps an octogenarian. The children followed beside him and presented him to me as “father.” The old man smiled and greeted me in French. A difficult start. I speak a little French, but not much, really only enough to rehearse the niceties and then ask if he could speak English. "Non," he said apologetically. After another abortive attempt at speaking French, I switched to Khmer on the chance he might understand. His eyes brightened and he responded in clean fluent Cambodian, much better than mine. My Khmer at the time was limited, but sufficient. Now we had a common ground. As we spoke together the kids giggled at the two barang forced to speak Khmer in order to communicate with each other. They really couldn’t get enough of us, snickering on the sidelines for the next hour.
The old man told me his name, but I was simply unable to understand his pronunciation, and never did get it clear, which I deeply regret. In hindsight I suspect I know who he was though I am hesitant to say without further confirmation.
He said that he had been the priest there at St. Michael Church since the late 1950s, and had been in Cambodia for at least a decade or two before that. Kindly and accommodating gentleman that he was, he proceeded to give me a tour of the grounds and the church and told me the story of St Michael Church as he knew it.
As we walked around the building he emphasized that the church reflected a seafaring theme appropriate to a port town, noting that it was named for St. Michael the patron saint of sailors, and more importantly that the nautical motif was embodied in the design and even spirit of the church. He led me to the back and pointed out the ‘ship’s sail’ brick latticework that made up the entire rear wall. He then backed us up away from the building so as to allow a wider view. Sweeping his hands in the air he traced out the boat shaped brickwork along the sides. “Bateau! K’pal Tuk!...Voila!” he declared. I honestly hadn’t notice before, unobservant as I apparently am, but once he laid it out for me it became quite obvious. Viewed from the side the church is a boat and the walls its sails.
According to the priest the church has seen it share of fair and very troubled times.
On his history of St Michael Church, from its birth back when the French were still building the port until the beginning of the Khmer Rouge period a decade and a half later, St. Michael served the local Catholic community, primarily French (in the early days) and other foreigners, particularly ethnic Vietnamese which has always made up the bulk of the congregation. There are in fact very few Khmer Catholics in Cambodia. Even after centuries of missionary work, the Catholic Church has had precious little luck converting Khmers to the faith, capturing well less than 1% of the population for their efforts. On the other hand, more than 7% of the comparative large population of Vietnam is Catholic, most of them in the south, from which many of the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia originate.
According to the priest during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79, St Michael Church was used as a jail and an animal shed, but unlike almost every church in Cambodia, it escaped destruction. He speculated that perhaps the church’s very unchurch-like appearance saved it. Devoid of its function as a church, it did not look like religious structure and, unlike other more traditionally designed Catholic churches around the country, St Michael did not seem an obvious symbol of the bourgeoisie that the Khmer Rouge were trying to destroy.
The priest claimed that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 the church saw very little ascent in its station, and was used as a storage building of some sort through the 1980s into the 90s. He said that St. Michael was not reopened as a church until 1993 during the UN administration of Cambodia and has been operating continuously as a Catholic church ever since. As of today… well… as of day before yesterday when I was there, it appeared very little different than it did when I was first visited in 1995. In fact I have visited the church more than a dozen times in the last decade and a half and it has remained essentially the same save a few details. Now there are more out buildings, a new terrace and gazebo in front of the church, a bigger crucifix inside and small pictures on the walls marking the Stations of the Cross, but that is all that can be counted changed in the last 15 years.
Behind the church, on a lush garden path leading up the mountain, is a shrine of some sort to the Virgin Mary, but a shrine unlike I have seen before. At a distance I first guessed it a traditional Cambodian spirit house. But on closer inspection I could see an image of the Virgin atop and the shrine appeared more a representation of a cave than a spirit house. Perhaps a model of the cave tomb of Jesus? Or a Cambodian inspired house for the spirit of Mary? Or something else. I am not sure and there was no-one around to ask. A question for my next visit to St Michael.
*For more on the architecture of St Michael see Building Cambodia: 'New Khmer Architecture' 1953 - 1970 by Helen Grant-Ross and Darryl Collins.
St Michael Church is located in Sihanoukville city at the base of Sihanoukville Mountain, just off the corner of Boray Kamakor and Kampuchea-Soviet Mittapheap Streets.