A mother embodies the Catholic spirit in the Cambodian capital

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With a smile, Sonny Leng opened the doors to his home near the Chroy Changvar Bridge in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The house is in a congested commercial locality lined with stores selling and repairing machinery such as motorcycle parts. The sliding doors in the house look a bit run down.

Inside, it looks like it’s been deserted for months now. “The last tenant left a few months ago,” Sonny said, not letting the smile on his face fade.

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

“As a widow, you have to trust God and keep working hard. No advice will help,” Sonny says in effect.

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

Sonny lives on the top floor of the house with his daughter and two grandchildren as the other three boys are now adults and have families of their own. They live elsewhere in Phnom Penh.

Catholic mothers like Sonny were the backbone of the Phnom-Penh Vicariate by catechizing their children to become Catholics. 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 paintings. The largest of these is that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Below, on a small altar, stand the statues of saints and of Mother Mary. On one side are photos of Sonny’s relatives – mother, father and her husband Ham Kuy, who died in 2002.

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

“This house has provided me with such precious memories of both joy and sadness for so many years,” she says wistfully as she thinks of life before her husband’s death.

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

Ms. Leng with her grandchildren at home. (Photo provided)

The loneliness of a widow

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

“All of a sudden, I found myself alone. The children were very young… the eldest was only in tenth grade. Our income suddenly stopped. I was just a housewife I didn’t know what to do, how to find a job or how to run a business,” she says, wiping away tears.

She started selling cakes and fruits in front of her house to earn an income. She would get up at 4 a.m. to buy stuff from wholesalers and resell it throughout the day in her community.

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

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

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

“I listened to them all, but I responded, just listened,” she says.

Sonny said she has 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 enormous difficulties”, rejoices Sonny.

Strange Ways of God

“Sometimes we didn’t have money to fix a leaky roof. At one point, the house almost collapsed because it was made of wood and it was too old. And God intervened to help me,” she said. “He sent a cousin of mine who is in house building. He helped me fix the roof bit by bit until it was finished. I thank God for giving me a real answer.”

She said that divine interventions were many in her life. Her children prayed with her and witnessed the “strange ways of God”, thus becoming stronger in their faith.

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

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

Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity offered to take care of three orphan children, to provide them with accommodation, food and education. She was paid US$150 a month for taking on this responsibility.

“Well, I was very happy. It helped my business and the education of the children. I bought more things to expand my business.” She adds.

Her youngest son, Liheang Kuy, 32, said his mother “worked very hard” until her children graduated, got jobs and started families of their own.

“Without her, I would not have graduated from university. Nor would I know the meaning of Catholic life,” he says.

As young children, they did not understand why their mother forced them to go to church and Sunday school while other children were enjoying the holidays.

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

Christians are a tiny minority representing 2% of Cambodia’s 16 million inhabitants, 95% of whom are Buddhists and about 3% Muslims.

Liheang says he and his siblings grew up seeing their mother pray 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 at night and before going to bed,” he says.

Even now, she regularly attends mass.

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

“We should help the church without thinking about what the church gives back to us. God will give us something better than what the parish can give,” Liheang said, citing his mother.

An angry priest or nun should not be the reason for turning away from the faith.

“If we don’t go to church, that means we are also angry with God,” she said.

All of his children are Sunday Mass regulars and if one of them is missing, Sonny will want to know why, Liheang says.

Ms. Leng on Maundy Thursday at St. Joseph’s Church. (Photo provided)

love and conversion

Sonny was born into a Catholic family in a Vietnamese village, some 70 kilometers from Phnom Penh. She could not study after the 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 be baptized,” Sonny says.

Two of her stepchildren are Buddhists. But they are ready to let their children grow up as Catholics and be baptized. Sonny has six grandchildren.

Sonny said she followed her children’s wishes in choosing their partners. “It doesn’t matter who they want to choose, as long as they love each other, I’m okay. It’s my policy”

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

Their parish, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, is only about 500 meters away, allowing him to walk to church frequently, especially after the Cambodian government restored religious freedom in 1995.

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

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

Ms. Leng poses for a photo (Photo provided)

Lead by example

She says that before going to bed, she calls 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 don’t go, they won’t have faith. We have to let them see, whether we pray or not. We have to let them know,” says -she.

Raising children in one’s family meant letting them learn by the example of their parents and the discipline into which they initiated them.

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

“My husband, from our marriage until his death, never insulted me or cursed me or the children. I never heard anything like that from him.”

Liheang confirmed that he had never seen his parents fight or argue.

“Before, we were struggling because we didn’t have enough income. Now all my children have finished their studies and they have a job,” explains her mother.

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

His life no longer depends on the rent. “Prayer is important. If you trust God, He will provide everything,” she says.

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