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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A slice of history crumbling away

A slice of history crumbling away

T HE 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


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


"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


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


Without rescue action, the church will join their fate, leaving behind only the memories

of those who used to call it their home.



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