In 1990, Mother Teresa’s nuns asked him to stay with them to celebrate Mass. The PIME Missionary, as soon as he arrived he wrote, “The whole of Cambodia has been reduced to a forced labor camp.” For 30 years, he accompanied the rebirth of the small local Church.
The Catholic Church of Cambodia mourns its pioneer after the years of Pol Pot. Fr. Toni Vendramin, an Italian PIME Missionary, who died last month at the age of 78. In 1990, he was the first priest to return to the country after years of terror [from the Cambodian Genocide]. He had been hospitalized for several weeks at the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital for bacterial pneumonia.
A native of the province of Treviso, and a priest since 1969, Fr. Vendramin had been a missionary in Bangladesh for 15 years before leaving for Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge government was showing the first signs of opening up. “The Sisters of Mother Teresa,” he recalled last year in an interview with Mondo e Missione, “had been invited by the government. They wanted to return permanently but were looking for a priest to accompany them. They had met a French missionary, Fr. Emile Destombes (the future vicar apostolic of Phnom Penh, who died in 2016, ed.) who was there for two or three months on a cooperator’s visa. Like him, there was another Maryknoll missionary, Fr. Tom Dunleavy; there were no other priests. The sisters were telling the government, ‘we will go back to Cambodia, but we want a guarantee that we will have a priest with us to say Mass.’”
On November 23, 1990, along with four religious sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, Fr. Vendramin boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “We arrived without a visa, but with a letter of invitation from Prime Minister Hun Sen; at the airport, they did not know what to do,” Fr. Toni recounted. “All of Cambodia was reduced to a forced labor camp and exterminated its own people, in the name of an aberrant and criminal ideology,” the priest wrote a few days later in a letter addressed to friends.
The Cambodian government wanted the Missionaries of Charity to open a home for those mutilated by landmines, but the sisters did not feel up to it. So, they began to collect the sick or beggars who slept in the streets, and then they took care of abandoned children or those suffering from AIDS. “Of churches there were none, we found ourselves in private homes to celebrate Mass,” Fr. Vendramin still recalled. “At the end of 1990, we managed to get back the dormitory of the minor seminary; it was there that we celebrated the first Christmas, it was a very moving experience.” However, it was an activity still marked by many restrictions. “I could not move beyond a radius of 13 miles from Phnom Penh,” the missionary explained. “It was only with the arrival of the United Nations, for the 1993 elections, that freedom of movement improved and it was also possible to begin reorganizing the Church.”
In recent years, Fr. Vendramin had led St. Peter’s parish in the area of the airport. As long as the government allowed it, once a month he also went to the prison to visit inmates. “Coming here,” he said last year, taking stock of his 30 years in Cambodia, “was a very profound experience for me. Everything has changed in Phnom Penh; where there were only two or three paved roads today there are 40-story skyscrapers built by the Chinese. But the wounds of the past remain, more or less open or hidden. As for the Catholic presence, in all missions today there is a kindergarten, sometimes an elementary school. Along with basic facilities, homes for the disabled, other social initiatives both at the diocesan and national level. The city has grown, but this little Church of ours is also growing in small steps.”