UCA News

Mother embodies Catholic spirit in Cambodian capital

If you trust in God, he will provide everything, says 68-year-old Sonny Leng from Phnom Penh
Mrs. Leng cooks at home
UCA News reporter, Phnom Penh
By UCA News reporter, Phnom Penh
  • Published: August 08, 2022 03:14 AM GMT right
    • Updated: August 08, 2022 03:20 AM GMT
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With a smile, Sonny Leng opened the doors of her house near the Chroy Changvar Bridge in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The house stands in a congested business locality lined by shops selling and repairing machinery such as motorcycle parts.  The sliding doors of the house look a bit dilapidated.

Inside, it looks like it has been deserted for months now. "The last tenant left a few months ago," Sonny says without letting the smile on her face fade.

The income from the rent of this place provides for the needs of this 68-year-old Catholic widow. Her big red flowered shirt with knee-length rubber pants make her look younger than her age.

"As a widow, one has to trust in God and keep working hard. No advice will help," Sonny says as a matter of fact.

Mrs. Leng cooks at home. (Photo: Liheang Kuy)

Sonny lives on the upper floor of the house with her daughter and two grandchildren because the other three boys are now grown-up, and have their own families. They live elsewhere in Phnom Penh.

Catholic mothers like Sonny have been the backbone of Phnom-Penh vicariate in catechizing their children to come up in the Catholic faith. A majority of the approximately 12,000 Catholics in the vicariate are economically poor but strong in faith, as Church records show.

On the upper floor of the house, a wall is decorated with several pictures. The tallest among them is of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Below that on a small altar stand the statues of saints and Mother Mary. On one side there are pictures of Sonny's loved ones — mother, father, and her husband Ham Kuy, who died in 2002.

Sonny reminisces about her married life, saying she and her husband lived and worked in this house since 1990.

"This house has provided me with such precious memories mixed with both joys and sadness for so many years," she says nostalgically thinking about life before her husband's death.

Her life is now mostly confined to the house; her days are spent in prayer and work.

Mrs. Leng with her grandchildren at home. (Photo supplied)

The loneliness of a widow 

Ham, a mechanic, sold motorcycle parts and serviced them and they had a happy family life until he died unexpectedly from a sudden illness, Sonny said.

"All of a sudden I was left alone. The children were very young ... the eldest was only in the tenth grade. Our income suddenly stopped. I was just a housewife. I did not know what to do, how to find a job, or to run a business," she says wiping tears.

She started selling cakes and some fruit in front of her house to find income. She woke up at 4 a.m. to buy stuff from wholesalers and sold them throughout the day in her locality.

"I worked hard to earn money to send them to school," she says.


Mrs. Leng visits her husband's grave in Phnom Penh. (Photo: Liheang Kuy)

Relatives urged her to stop educating the children to save money. They also advised her to send them to do odd jobs to earn some income for the family.

"I listened to all of them, but did respond, just listened," she says.

Sonny said she always valued education and was determined to educate her children.

"And the children listened to me. They studied well. They never disappointed me despite the huge difficulties," Sonny says with satisfaction.

Strange ways of God

"Sometimes we had no money to repair a leaking roof. At one point the house was nearly collapsing because it was made of wood and was too old. And, God intervened to help me," she says. "He sent a cousin of mine who is into house construction. He helped me repair the roof little by little till it was finished. I thank God for giving me a real answer."

She said divine interventions were aplenty in her life. Her children prayed with her and witnessed "the strange ways of God,” thus growing strong in their faith.

When her small business was struggling to pay for the food and education of her children, there came an unexpected helping hand.

Mrs. Leng and her children pose for a photo with Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler of Phnom Penh. (Photo supplied) 

Sisters from the Missionaries of Charity offered her the job of caring for three orphan children, providing them with accommodation, food, and education. She was paid US$150 per month for taking the responsibility.

"Well, I was very happy. It helped my business and children's education. I bought more things to expand my business." she adds.

Her youngest son, 32-year-old Liheang Kuy, said his mother "worked really hard" until her children graduated, landed jobs, and started their own families.

"Without her, I would not have graduated from university. I also would not know the meaning of Catholic life," he says.

As young children, they did not understand why their mother was forcing them to go to church and Sunday school when other children enjoyed the holiday.

"Sundays were different for us … they [their friends] had time to go for walks and play. We were forced to go to church. But now we know the gifts we receive are also different," Liheang says.

Christians are a tiny minority making up two percent of Cambodia's 16 million people, some 95 percent of whom are Buddhists while around three percent are Muslims.

Liheang says he and his siblings grew up seeing their mother praying tirelessly at different times of the day. "She prays after waking up in the morning and recites the rosary in the afternoon. She prays again in the evening and before going to bed," he says.

Even now she attends Mass regularly.

Liheang said that his mother always encouraged her children to help the parish church.

"We have to help the church without thinking about what the church is giving us back. God will give us something better than what the parish can give," Liheang quotes his mother saying.

An angry priest or nun should not be the reason to turn away from the faith.

"If we do not go to church, it means we are angry with God too," she would say.

All her children are regulars at Sunday Mass and if one of them misses it, Sonny will want to know why, Liheang says.

Mrs. Leng on Holy Thursday at Saint Joseph's Church. (Photo supplied)

Love and conversion

Sonny was born in a Catholic family in a Vietnamese village, some 70 kilometers from Phnom Penh. She could not study after ninth grade because of the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

Sonny married Ham, then a Buddhist, while fleeing Vietnam. Her parents, like other Catholic parents at the time, opposed the marriage because they would not approve of their children marrying a non-Catholic.

"He loved me, and he agreed to learn Catechism and get baptized," Sonny says.

Two of her children-in-law are Buddhists. But they are willing to let their children grow up as Catholic and allow them to be baptized. Sonny has six grandchildren.

Sonny said she followed her children's wishes in selecting their partners. "No matter whom they want to choose, as long as they love each other, I am okay with it. That is my policy"

Sonny is relieved now and has nothing to worry about. She just wants her children to love one another.

Their parish, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, is only some 500 meters away, which allows her to walk frequently to the church, particularly after the Cambodian government restored religious freedom in 1995.

Every morning, she spends an hour attending Mass and for personal prayer at the church.

She helps the parish groups carry out various programs in the church and is also part of the parish charity group. Along with the parish priest they visit the sick, give communion to them, and help needy families by providing them with rice or other food items.

Mrs. Leng poses for a photo (Photo supplied)

Leading by example

She says that before going to bed, she calls for all her children and grandchildren to pray together, but she never forces them. And on Sundays, she regularly reminds them to go to church.

"If we tell them to go to church, but if we do not go, they will not have faith. We need to let them see, whether we pray or not. We need to let them know," she says.

Raising children in her family meant letting them learn by the example their parents set and the discipline the parents introduce them to.

Mrs. Leng with her granddaughter at Saint Joseph's Church, Phnom Penh (Photo supplied)

"My husband, from our marriage until his death, never called me a bad name or cursed me or the children. I never heard anything like that from him."

Liheang confirmed that he had never seen his parents fighting or arguing.

"Earlier we struggled because we did not have enough income. Now, all my children have finished their studies and they have a job," his mother says

Standing at the sliding door, Sonny says she is confident even if the next tenant doesn't come soon she is not going to worry.

Her life is not dependent on the rent anymore. "Prayer is important. If you trust in God, he will provide everything," she says.

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