By Sia Cheong Yew
A group of Singaporeans holidaying in Cambodia were delighted when they came across a floating church. It was once a karaoke lounge.
IT WAS A sight that was totally unexpected - and a pleasant surprise - for a group of Singapore Catholics holidaying in Cambodia recently. The group of four couples, including myself and my wife, were taking a leisurely boat ride down the Siem Reap River to have a look at the floating village when one of them spotted a wooden cross on top of a wooden structure from afar.
Above, the floating church, also known as the Karaoke Church, can be seen on Siem Reap River and it caters to about 70 people in the river village community.
As the boat drew nearer, they discovered to some excitement that the wooden structure was that of a Catholic church. So happy were the holidaymakers to see such an unusual sight that they asked their guide to make an unscheduled stop so that they could have a look inside. With a bit of rocking and rolling, the group of not-so-young tourists managed to climb on to the church where they met the caretaker, said a little prayer, took some pictures and made a little donation.
We found out that the church is also known as Karaoke Church because it was a karaoke parlour before the Jesuits bought it to serve the small number of Catholics in the village. Upon our return back to Singapore, I wrote to Jesuit Father Heri Bratasudarma, the parish priest, as I wanted to know more about this fascinating church.
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Below, an altar within the floating church bears witness to how the space has been converted from karaoke singing to worshipping the Lord.
He told me that he was originally from Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia, and went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in August 2000. After some months of studying the Khmer language, he was sent to Siem Reap, which is now his parish and part of the Diocese of Battambang where the bishop is a Jesuit.
It has many floating villages and three of them have Catholic communities. The one we visited is known as Chong Khnieh, which is nearest to Siem Reap. When Father Heri first arrived in Siem Reap, there were about 20 people attending Mass on Sunday. Gradually, the number increased.
"The newcomers were old Catholics who did not know that there was a resident priest and a Catholic community," Father Heri said. "Thanks to the Missionaries of Charity Sisters, the Sisters of Mother Teresa who went around visiting the poor in their habits. Their presence is like an advertisement of the presence of the Catholic church in Siem Reap."
It was only a year after his arrival in Siem Reap that Father Heri learnt about the presence of some Catholics in the floating village of Chong Khnieh. He said, "There were about seven families comprising about 70 people. But in each family, there was only one who had been baptized.
"When I asked them, they told me that it was for the first time that they had seen a priest in 26 years. That was why they could not join any catechism classes, no Catholic education for their children, no sacramental services for them etc..."
After discussing with the bishop, they decided to buy over the floating karaoke parlour and turned it into a centre of activities for the Catholic community. These include prayer sessions, Masses, Catechism, English and Khmer lessons for Vietnamese children and a day in a week when they feed rice soup to the poor.
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From left, the church caretaker and his son, welcome the Singaporean visitors Cheong Yip Seng, Cecily Cheong, Marilyn Quah, Janny Sia, Alan Cheah, Josephine Cheah, Edward Quah and Sia Cheong Yew as they made their unscheduled but pleasant visit on board the floating church.
One of the biggest difficulties that Father Heri encountered was language. Most of the people could not speak Khmer, the Cambodian language, as they were Vietnamese who had settled there for many years. Hence the priority placed on language and literacy classes to help them integrate into Cambodian society.
Because the government now recognizes the church's literacy classes, children who graduate from the two-year course can join the government school in Grade Three. "This gives me satisfaction," Father Heri said, "because, before, Cambodian children always looked down upon Vietnamese children. Now they respect them because some of the Vietnamese children have become the best students in their classes.
"Before, we could not have Mass in Khmer language in the floating church because they could not speak the language. Now we can and they can follow. They are active in singing and responding during the Mass."
Another big hurdle facing the church there is poverty. Because the people are poor, joining the Catholic community is not their priority. So, the attendance at Mass varies. As do the Khmer and English classes.
"Sometimes, we have many people joining our activities, some other time only a few," Father Heri said. "The children are all busy helping their parents who go out fishing. As for the parents, education is not the first priority. "We have been serving them for more than five years, but the number of baptisms is very low."
What is heartening for Father Heri, however, is that "we have many guests coming to help us". Their donations can sometimes amount to about US$60 a month. The money goes towards paying the teachers and for the rice soup.
"You know, for the rice soup, we need about US$20 to feed about 120 children for each session. Now we do this only once a week. When it is needed and we have money, we can give them twice a week," said Father Heri. He was convalescing in Bangkok after an operation when he replied to my email.