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Emile Destombes on the day of his ordination in 1997. Photo supplied

Former bishop Emile Destombes dies at 80

Some 2,000 members of Phnom Penh’s Catholic community paid their respects on Saturday morning to Emile Destombes, the French former bishop of Phnom Penh who dedicated his adult life to the Cambodian people.

Destombes’ last words were a request to take communion while attending Thursday morning mass; the 80-year-old died of a heart attack 15 minutes after the service was over.

Destombes first came to Cambodia in March 1965. He stayed until 1975 when, after two weeks spent trapped in the French Embassy, the Khmer Rouge “dumped [him] out of the country in a truck across the border to Thailand”, in the words of long-time friend Sister Denise Coghlan.

In 1989, appalled by reports he was hearing in refugee camps along the Thai border, he successfully petitioned the Cambodian government to let him back in the country.

There he set up a makeshift church in a house he rented on Street 228, where Coghlan lived with him in 1990. Also being put up by Destombes was Brother Noel Oliver – both remembered his fondness for Johnny Walker, which he referred to as “cough mixture”.

“He was very fond of cough mixture, a good bottle of Red or Black Label, depending on what we could get. At night, one of us would start coughing and he’d say, ‘I think it’s time for a little cough mixture’,” Oliver recalled.

Destombes’s other vice was Gauloise cigarettes. He gave up both upon retirement in 2010.

“We didn’t cremate him because he wanted to become one with the soil in Cambodia,” said Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Destombes’s successor as bishop of Phnom Penh.

Destombes spent most of the 1980s in Brazil, and his time there coloured his theology. “He was influenced by the basic Christian communities in Latin America.

He didn’t want a hierarchy, he wanted a church of the people,” Coghlan said. “He saw the people here as the backbone of the church.”

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