A French missionary bishop who spent decades helping revive a decimated Catholic community in Cambodia after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, died on Jan. 28. Bishop Emile Destombes died at the age of 80 in his home in Phnom Penh, after receiving Holy Communion from his successor, Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler of Phnom Penh. Born in 1931 in Roncq, France, Emile Destombes was ordained to the priesthood in 1961. He was appointed coadjutor vicar apostolic of Phnom Penh in 1997, succeeded in 2001 and retired in 2010.
A member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, Fr. Destombes was sent to Cambodia in 1964, at the age of 29. 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. 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 also stood with the people of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, welcoming the approach of the Khmer Rouge - whom they believed would bring long-awaited peace. 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.
After spending the next 14 years teaching in France and carrying out missionary work in Brazil, Father Destombes returned to the region in 1989, where he worked with Cambodian refugees along the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1990, the government returned Catholic churches and allowed the community to freely worship once again. Fr. Destombes went to Phnom Penh, celebrating Mass at his house while readying the church for the first services in 15 years. As he grew sick, he remained committed to Cambodia, wishing to die and be buried in his adopted homeland. (Source: UCAN)