Father Robert Venet (R) works in a rice field in Kampong Ko village, Kampong Thom province. Photograph supplied
The long and adventurous life of Father Robert Venet, a representative of the Catholic Church in Cambodia for nearly 60 years, was filled with stories that clash with the popular impression of a quiet, staid priest.
One that stood out to Father Vincent Senechal, a younger colleague in the Paris Foreign Mission who first met Venet about 20 years ago, was the priest’s haphazard driving.
“He would drive his car crazy, very fast, especially in the 1990s when he was going to Sihanoukville,” Senechal said.
In an account of Venet’s life pieced together by fellow priests for the Paris Foreign Mission Society’s archives, there is a description of Venet’s time working with Cambodian refugees in the Thai border camps during the late 1970s. At least once, returning from a visit to Bangkok, he left at 3 in the morning to avoid police, flooring it south.
Still, he was sometimes stopped and briefly detained, before speeding off again to his destination.
“He only stopped driving when he was 87 or 88,” Senechal said.
Venet, one of the longest-serving French missionaries in Cambodia, whose consistent devotion to the country meant he bore witness to virtually every major historical event in its chaotic post-World War II history – sometimes getting more involved than he should have – died on January 17 in a house for retired missionaries near Avignon in the South of France. He was 95.
With few interruptions, Venet lived in Cambodia for much of his life, a life that seems ready-made for a Hollywood film about the courageous missionary venturing into unknown territory, winning hearts and minds along the way and dodging close calls with death.
For a long time, you could see a scar leftover from when he caught some burglars in the act. They thwacked him on the head and left him to die, but he crawled into a haystack to recover. When he was well again, he went back to work.
“He was kind of an old-fashioned missionary. He could have been in the 19th century,” Senechal said.
According to the Paris Foreign Mission’s mini-biography of Venet − which supplies much of the biographical information used in this article − he moved in 1949 to his mission in Kampong Ko village, in Kampong Thom province, where he would stay until the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
To watch for raids by Khmer Issarak guerrillas fighting for Cambodian independence from France, which came in 1953, he established guard posts and maintained all-night vigils.
To stay awake, he drank so many cups of coffee that he developed a severe addiction to caffeine and had to be treated.
Today, the people he lived with still remember him fondly.
“I was his cook when he worked in Kampong Thom province,” said Mol Yat, 80, who first met Venet when she was 18 years old.
“I love him very much, because he was a good person who helped poor people.”
What’s more, she said, Venet liked to eat all types of Khmer food, and she didn’t have to deviate from what she knew.
“I never cooked French food for him, because he liked Khmer food, especially prahok, Cambodian fish paste,” Yat said.
Venet helped with rice farming, education, and escorted villagers to hospital when they were ill.
“His life was very difficult in Cambodia, because he lived with the poor people, but he was happy, and that was the way he liked it,” Yat said.
At Kampong Ko, he built a new church and a home for nuns. He also established a fish farm.
There were the occasional clashes, like the time he found out people were growing marijuana, and yanked up all the plants.
In 1969, he was captured by marauding Vietcong soldiers, who took him into the forest for 10 days. They attempted to hold a public tribunal against the “imperialist”, but the villagers stood up for him, and he was spared.
He was expelled from the country when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975. Venet had travelled to the city to help refugees from Kampong Thom. After a brief period, he was back in the region working with Cambodians in the Thai border camps, where he stayed for several years.
While there, he collected testimonies of refugees upon their arrival, and recorded Khmer Rouge radio programs. Because of his relationship with fellow priest François Poinchaud, who as a member of the Paris Foreign Mission befriended Venet in 1965, he forwarded the information, which served as the base material for Poinchaud’s 1977 book Cambodia Year Zero.
“He used to send all of that to me in France,” Poinchaud said in a recent interview. He remembered Venet as a “gruff man who had a very good heart”.
“He always lived a life of poverty, in the service of those even more impoverished. He was incapable of bearing misery and injustice,” Poinchaud said. “One day, he told me, ‘To cope with the blows in this universe of suffering, you have to know how to cry’.”
Venet was born on February 12, 1917, in Paris, but grew up near Versailles. He came from a family of seven children, and he started studying for the priesthood as a young man after his father died from wounds he suffered in World War I. Venet was ordained in 1944, whereupon he learned of his destination: Phnom Penh.
He was part of the Paris Foreign Mission, whose roots in the region go back to the late 17th century in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
“Every time missionaries would be expelled, the church would collapse, and so French missionaries were sent to train local priests who could replace the missionaries,” Senechal said.
World War II delayed things. He had fought in the war back home, where he escaped a German Luftwaffe bombing of his tank.
When he made it out the war, getting to Cambodia proved difficult, as fighting continued to drag on. Instead, he went east to spend an unhappy period as a chaplain with the French expeditionary corps in Vietnam. After a short stint there, he started work in Phnom Penh in 1947.
He was supposed to learn Vietnamese, because many Catholics in the country were of Vietnamese descent. But he refused. “I was sent to Cambodia, bishop,” he reportedly said. “Let me learn their language.”
After his lengthy stay in Kampong Thom and his expulsion by the Khmer Rouge, he worked in the border area until 1990, at one point becoming a sort of postman delivering mail on behalf of the Red Cross.
He returned to France that year, but came back in 1991 at the age of 74. He then moved to Sihanoukville and revived the Catholic church in Koh Kong.
In 2000, for his work with refugees, King Norodom Sihanouk bestowed on Venet the Commander of the Royal Order of Sahamétrei, the highest award given to foreigners in Cambodia.
Venet relocated to Phnom Penh three years later and stayed in a house for retired missionaries. Because of his advanced age and his need for better care, he returned to France in 2009.
Senechal said a large group of people gathered at the airport to bid Venet a final and emotional farewell.
Ros Yeoun, 61, who knew Venet since she was 13, when he arranged to send her from Kampong Thom to Phnom Penh to study, was among them.
“I wept when I saw him off at the airport, when he flew to treat his illness at his country. He said he did not want to go back to his country, he wanted to live and die in Cambodia,” Yeoun said.