Saint Michel Church

In the sixties, several French Catholic priests designed churches in the style of New Khmer Architecture. Among them was Father Ahadobery, a Basque born in 1931. A French missionary, he was reputed for his artistic talents, which he used to set up various art workshops. However good he was at painting and embossing copper plate, it took a big leap to design the Saint Michel Church. In doing so, he created the sort of graceful atmosphere that the pompous Phnom Penh Cathedral totally lacks.

Norodom Sihanouk is said to have donated the land to the church when the new town was being built, Vann Molyvann seems to have involved in the design. Named after the patron saint of sailors, the church is oriented east-west on a hill overlooking the port and is relatively simple. Two slopes of a steep red-tiled wooden roof rest on reinforced concrete walls partly made of interlaced brickwork. The structure resembles a boat and creates an interesting light inside. A simple bell hang from a porch facing the sea with a double-skin apparently symbolizing hands in prayer or sails of a boat. The choir faces east and small glazed windows are reminiscent of traditional stained glass. Yves Ramousse, who arrived in Cambodia in 1957 and was later bishop of Phnom Penh, recalls Ahadobery sketching the design and having it built by a clever Vietnamese builder.

The Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed all but two of the 73 churches that existed in Cambodia in 1975- the Saint Michel Church and a Carmelite chapel on the Chruoy Changvar peninsula in Phnom Penh. The Sihanoukville Church was used as a barn, but for some reason was never demolished. Nobody seems to know why, although it is said that its Khmer flavor may have saved it from the wrath of the Khmer Rouge.

The Church does not appear to have been consecrated officially. Today it is used by the small Vietnamese Catholic community of Sihanoukville. Father Ahadobery himself died in 1996.

Source: Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970

Posted in Architecture, Cambodia

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