PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA --- On Friday, May 24, 1991, Father Valter Brigolin and Brother Roberto Panetto arrived to the then Pochentong Airport, today renamed Phnom Pehn International Airport. It was 5 months before the signature of the Paris Peace Agreement (October 23, 1991) that would end the Cambodia-Vietnamese War and start a time of reconstruction. It was a time for much to do in a country that was totally devastated no for one war or conflict, but for a complicated chain of events since 1970. About three generations of Cambodia were affected by violence, despair, economical strangles, high poverty, deceases, lack of education and many other more.
Don Vechi visited the small Salesian community in Phnom Penh, 1995.
But it was not 29 years ago that Cambodians met Don Bosco for the first time. He went to meet them in a foreign land and in a terrible moment of their history. The United Nations, after a long process of agreements with the Thai government, requested many organisations to assist in many ways the Cambodian families that were gathered along the Cambodian-Thai border: The Cambodian Refugee Camps. One of those organisations was the Salesians of Don Bosco in Bangkok. They accepted the challenge to come in relation with the Cambodians, an unknown to them people with a nightmare on the back.
When Br. Roberto arrived to Phnom Penh as a Thai Italian missionary, he was already talking Khmer Language, learnt since April 1989 at the refugee camps. He was not just another foreigner, but a well known Salesian among many children, youth and adults that knew him from the camps.
The first Salesians in Cambodia were very few and they were so for many years to come: Fr. Valter Brigolin and Br. Roberto Panetto were the first ones to arrive in 1991; Fr. John Visser was sent in 1992 and Br. Conrado Lagaya from the North Philippine Province arrived on that same year. Four Salesians who were to set the first stones of the Salesian presence, around the projects of technical education and children fund. In such heroic enterprise of many moments, actions and people, the lay people (many of them even no Catholics), were the big support in many ways. The help of many donors would create also the enough resources to build environments for the education and protection of children and young.
In 1993 the first Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (FMA) arrived too and open also in Phnom Penh the vocational centres for girls and young women - today there are more than 30 FMA (two sisters are Cambodians) and the country is the main headquarters of the FMA Province of Cambodia and Myanmar. The Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (SIHM) did sent also their missionaries to the Cambodian youth, making the first stones of the Cambodian Salesian Family very meaningful since the beginning - today there are 5 SIHM in the country and the first Cambodian SIHM. The past pupils of Salesian schools in Thailand offered themselves to be the first training teachers for the new born technical centres. It was going to open a vigorous process for the creation of the Cambodian Association of Past Pupils.
In 1995 Fr. Juan Edmundo Vecchi became the first Rector Mayor to visit the missionary communities of Cambodia, providing a great encouragement to the small community. He recommended the care for local vocations, even if the situation of the country was so poor and the Salesians would be required to support the Cambodian Catholic Church in anyway possible, and also to stand on the empowerment of lay people as already then missionary partners.
In 1997 the Salesian wind reached the only international sea port of Cambodia: Sihanoukville. Fr. Valter Brigolin together with a Thai Don Bosco past pupil, Chachawan, were the first leaders of the technical school. Fr. Oscar Zamora came from the Phillipines and stayed one year, then he went to Africa where he died being Master of Novices. Also Fr. George from Sri Lanka came to the mission after his works in Africa.
In 1999 arrived the first young Salesian in practical training: today Fr. Albeiro Rodas (Fr. Samnang), who opened the first Oratory in Phnom Penh on February 2000. Fr. Gerard Ravasco (Fr. Gigi) arrived also in 1999, Fr. Leonardo Ochoa (Don Leo) in 2000. Fr. Sebastian from India arrived in that same year and stayed in Cambodia until 2005. He already passed away. In 2001 the second young Salesian in practical training, today Fr. Eugene Xalxo. In 2000, with a couple of volunteers, Bruno and Catalina Ponçon, the Salesians opened a centre for children in Poipet, at the Cambodian-Thai border. Also the presence of Don Bosco in Battambang have been through the dedicated work of lay people. In 2000, another couple, Hugo and Virgine De Com Bruggee, were able to convince the bishop to allow Don Bosco to start the presence with them. After them and for many years, Miss Tineke van de Beek stayed in Battambang and continues today at the side of Fr. Gigi and Mammi Pass, this one an authentic Mamma Margarita with a Salesian heart.
In February 11, 2007, His Majesty the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, visited Don Bosco Sihanoukville and inaugurated the Don Bosco Hotel School. It was also the year of the start of the social communication centre to train young people from rural areas in media communication. In 2008 the first Cambodian made his promise as Salesian Cooperator: Former teacher and past pupil Mr. Sri Thea from Takeo Province, where he created a centre for the education of rural children in close work with the local Catholic Church. Today there are 25 Cambodian Salesian Cooperators: Sok Bosco Aun, Sambath Joseph Kong, Kong Mary Sokkheng, Chy Mary Suntheary, Dirb Paul Sokvuthy, Chan Joseph Kimkhy, Chhorm John Bosco Sothun, Fr. Phongnirand Lawrence Numkanisorn, Sun Anna Sarika, Say John Bosco That, Chin John Bosco Pisei, RemMary Sreykhouch, Noun Therese Aun, Kok Therese Vanna, Nim Paul Ravut and Nin John Bosco Linal.
The Salesian presence was also growing with the coming of new missionaries: Fr. Ceferino Ledesma, Fr. Roel Soto, who is today the superior of the Delegation, Fr. Mark Yang and Fr. Jeon Bok Nam from South Korea supported the development of Don Bosco Poipet, Brother Martin Tain Tai, Fr. Charles Michael Aron, Fr. Khai from Thailand, a diocesan priest who became Salesian Cooperator and has made a great contribution to the Cambodian mission. Since 2008 there were the first Cambodian aspirants to the Salesian Congregation: Br. Somony, Br. John Nary, Br. Prak Ieth, Br. Narong, Br. Dara and Br. Moeung. Other young clerics for practical training were sent periodically from the Missionary Expeditions: Today Fr. Joseph Khoa, Br. Joshua Pilaku, Br. Michael Geilwark, Br. Hoa, Br. Paul Boa, Br. Raymond Lawrence and Br. Daniel.
The second decade of the 21st century has been also full of memorable events: In 2011 there was the opening of Don Bosco in Kep Province under the leadership of Fr. Samnang (in 2016 the Carmelites of Sacred Heart of Mexico sent three sisters to support the mission in that region of the country.) On 12th June 2013, the Rector Major Fr. Pascual Chavez and his major council approved the establishment of the Delegation of Cambodia and, on February 18, 2014, appointed Fr. Roel Soto as first Delegation Superior of the Salesian Delegation of Cambodia with two canonical communities (Don Bosco Phnom Penh and Don Bosco Sihanoukville) and five houses: Poipet, Battambang, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Kep. The second visit of a Rector Major, Fr. Angel Fernandez Artimi, 10th successor of Don Bosco, was between February and March 2016. The development of Don Bosco Andong Chen and Don Bosco Salabalath. On December 5, 2017, the 7 members of the Salesian Delegation Council of Cambodia, 7 representatives of the FMA communities in Cambodia, Fr Ivano Pertile, and Fr John Lissandrin together with 9 Thai VDBs came to Cambodia to attend the first profession of the VDB in Cambodia at Mary Help of Christians Church at Don Bosco Technical School at Phnom Penh. And many other activities that mark the way of Saint John Bosco and his sons by the Cambodian paths, helping those in more need, especially children and youth.
In this way, the Salesians in Cambodia are preparing for the 30 anniversary of the arrival of Don Bosco to this country by May 2021. In the middle of the global pandemic, the Salesians are full of optimism and love, trusting in God the Most High, because they know that whoever remain in the Faith, will be protected. They remain in Cambodia, because it is their call and work for the poorest. Whatever would be such celebration in one year more, with a lot solemnity or much simplicity, the most important is that would be a great spirit of thanksgiving to God and to Saint John Bosco for all these years of Graces.
Br. Roberto Panetto at Don Bosco Phnom Penh, 2000.
Street children in Poipet that were supported by Don Bosco, year 2001.
Don Bosco School in Kep Province, opened in 2011.
Br. Roberto with Bruno and Catalina Poçon in 2000, during the constructions of the new school in Poipet.
Bruno and Catalina Poçon dedicated their life for Poipet children with the heart of Don Bosco, being a great example of lay missionary life.
Another lay couple who became first stones of foundation in Don Bosco Cambodia: Hugo and Virgine De Com Bruggee got permission from Bishop Enrique Figueroa to open Don Bosco Andong Chen in Battambang, year 2000. They remained two years working to rescue children from brick factories.