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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Hideous' Cathedral

'Hideous' Cathedral

It is true that Catholicism is part of Cambodia's history, though as Lachlan Hastings

optimistically surmises, there were only 61,000 Catholics in Cambodia in 1971 (i.e.

approximately 1 percent of the population), so I must confess I was somewhat taken

aback by the large spread given to the revival of Catholicism in Lachlan Hastings'

March 25 article. Could it be that the Phnom Penh Post was a Christian publication?

A conversation with the Editor allayed my fears and encouraged me to share the following

reactions.

Construction of the Church as a community and the construction of its buildings have

always been seen as missionaries' role. Consultants are not the only report writers

of the world, French missionaries were required to make annual reports, carefully

stored in the French Mission archives in Paris. They paint a dismal picture of the

hard work facing missionaries after independence in Cambodia, missionaries who every

year had to report the low numbers of Cambodian conversions to Catholicism, and hence

justify their presence throughout the country through other labors, such as church

building, education and other worthwhile activities.

Having effected thorough research about post-independence architecture with Darryl

Collins and investigated the Cathedral of Phnom Penh in particular, I could not help

but notice that among the four large illustrations shown there were two naves. This

was obviously a mistake. The right hand photograph is the correct one. Yves Ramousse,

Archbishop of Phnom Penh, interviewed in 2001, thought the more Gothic-style one

second from the left might be the Ste Bernadette church at Kep.

Some facts: the cathedral was started under colonial rule in 1952 and dedicated in

1955. It was designed by a French architect, Maurice Masson, who died on January

1, 1955, and the construction was supervised by another French architect, Henri Chatel,

who confided to me when I interviewed him in 2001 that he thought this was "a

hideous building and he was not sorry to learn that the Khmer Rouge had destroyed

it!"

Joseph Chmar Salas was the first Cambodian Bishop. Fate had it that his ordination

was held on the April 14, 1975, but he chose this to take place in the simple church

of Russei Keo rather than in the pompous Cathedral. He was one of many Cambodian

Christians taken by the Khmer Rouge to Tain Kok near Kampong Thom, where they all

died of hunger and/or other tortures.

Yves Ramousse commented that the two steeples were never finished, ''fortunately",

for he too had misgivings about its overwhelming presence in the city fabric. According

to him there were 73 churches in Cambodia when Pol Pot took over.

In fact nobody seems to regret this cumbersome edifice that was not only scrupulously

demolished by the Khmer Rouge as reported by both Lachlan Hastings and Paul Reeve,

but whose very foundations were painstakingly removed.

It seems odd that Lachlan Hastings thinks the Khmer Rouge considered this building

"a show of Vietnamese imperialism," rather than French hegemony. And it

is also strange that the authors failed to mention the other major reinforced concrete

building demolished by the Khmer Rouge: the French Embassy that had only been built

in the mid-1960s by the French prix de Rome, Pierre Dufau. This could not have been

done to take revenge on Vietnamese imperialism could it? The present embassy was

built in the mid-1990s on the previous foundations.

There was likely more than one motivation for the Khmer Rouge to destroy this church:

it was at once a symbol of imperialism, a Christian building, a congregation dominated

by the Vietnamese population and part of their campaign to obliterate all religious

activity from the face of Cambodia. It should not be forgotten that all the mosques

were eradicated and Muslims persecuted, and they represented close on 10 percent

of the population.

Contrary to Paul Reeve's statement that "without a doubt the destruction of

Catholic Churches was thorough and systematic," the beautiful, small "St

Michel's" church in Sihanoukville survived and is still serving its community.

The reality is that this pretentious, academic, neo-Gothic Romanesque pastiche building

was an affront to the religious tolerance promulgated under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum.

The site in the East-West axis of Wat Phnom (at present Bayon Telecommunications

on Monivong) was an imperialist, even Pagan, choice, and so far removed from any

religious spirituality that the nave was orientated West in opposition to ancient

Christian symbolism by which it should have been orientated East. This was presumably

so that its impressive facade facing Wat Phnom was set off in the perspective of

the wide boulevard in true French academic style.

Lachlan Hastings cites Ponchaud as saying this building was a mistake but attempts

to justify it as a "bold move necessary ... amid continuing political instability."

I wonder what political instability in the early 1950s he is referring to? After

independence Cambodia went through one of its most prosperous and stable eras ever.

The Sangkum Reastr Niyum tolerated all religious practices, and according to Buddhism

"giving credit to another person's religion gives credit to one's own."

For me, this construction epitomizes the last stale breath of colonialism.

Helen Grant Ross

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