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Bishop who helped rebuild church after Khmer Rouge, dies

French-born Emile Destombes chose to be buried in his adopted Cambodia
Bishop who helped rebuild church after Khmer Rouge, dies

French Bishop Emile Destombes of Phnom Penh, who died Jan. 28, chose to be buried in his adopted homeland of Cambodia. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Phnom Penh)

Published: January 29, 2016 09:23 AM GMT
Updated: January 29, 2016 10:13 AM GMT

Bishop Emile Destombes of Phnom Penh, who spent decades helping rebuild a Catholic community nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, died Jan. 28 at the age of 80.

He died in his Phnom Penh home Jan. 26, after receiving Communion from his successor, Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler. 

A member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, Father Destombes was sent to Cambodia in 1964, little aware as a 29-year-old of the lifelong commitment he would make to the country.

As civil war worsened in the 1970s, Father Destombes risked his life smuggling food to thousands of ethnic Vietnamese imprisoned as part of the Lon Nol government’s anti-Vietnamese campaign. In an email circulated by Father Francois Ponchaud, the priest recalled him driving a truck loaded with food, forcing a blockade of soldiers to stand back.

With hundreds of thousands of war refugees flooding into Phnom Penh in the first half of the decade, Father Destombes worked to provide them with housing and assistance, allowing them to ultimately become self-sufficient. 

He would later recall standing on the streets of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, welcoming the approach of the Khmer Rouge — whom many believed would bring long-awaited peace.

"He told the story of celebrating with people for what they thought were liberators," said Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, director of JRS Cambodia, who first met Father Destombes almost 30 years ago in the Cambodian refugee camps.

"He was then just staggered to see people expelled from the capital on that very day."

One of the last foreigners to leave the country, Father Destombes stayed in the French embassy for 15 days, before finally being expelled from the country.

"He didn't want to leave Cambodia, but he was forced to by the Khmer Rouge," recounted Sister Coghlan.

After spending the next 14 years teaching in France and carrying out missionary work in Brazil, Father Destombes went back to the region in 1989, where he worked in the sprawling Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. 

In 1990, the government returned Catholic churches and allowed the community to freely worship once again. Father Destombes went to Phnom Penh, celebrating Mass at his house while readying the church for the first services in 15 years.

French Bishop Emile Destombes blesses a Khmer Catholic in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy Catholic Phnom Penh)


The community welcomed him with open arms.

"When he came back to Cambodia, he always said that the Catholic Church had stayed alive through the laypeople, that despite all the starvation and everything they had been through, they kept it alive," said Sister Denise.

As he grew sicker, he remained committed to Cambodia, deciding that he wished to die and be buried in his adopted homeland.

"He remains for his friends, the image of the good pastor, indefatigable, deeply attached to the people to whom he was sent," said Father Ponchaud.

In a 2007 interview with Fides, Father Destombes recalled the strength of his congregants.

"Naturally, during the period of terror, the flame of the Christian faith continued to burn in the hearts of the faithful although it could not be lived in the open."

Services will be held on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 9 a.m. at St. Joseph parish in Phnom Penh.

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