Rome, 22 December 2010 – Former long-term JRS member and survivor of the Cambodian genocide, Sr Marie Jeanne Ath, a Sister of Providence, passed away peacefully in Nancy, close to her congregation’s mother house at Portieux, northeastern France.
Born in May 1943, Sr Ath was among a handful of Cambodian religious to survive the genocide of Pol Pot in the 1970s. At that time she had been sent out of her country to train as a nurse in France. Staying on in France she was elected as a member of the General Council of her order. On completing that assignment, JRS gave her the opportunity to return to serve her own people.
This year, Sr Ath had returned to France just a few months earlier for treatment for an aggressive cancer which eventually led to her death three days ago.
“We loved her greatly, and will now miss her terribly. Yet we were also so fortunate that she could be with JRS and the Jesuit Service team for these last 23 years”, said Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, who accompanied her through all of those years, and who is now JRS Cambodia Director.
Before she died, Sr Ath told a friend of her love for the spirit of JRS and of all she was able to do for the Cambodian refugees when she was with JRS. Even as she was dying her mind was clearly on those she served.
“What I remember most from JRS was the great team both at the border camps and in Cambodia. The team gave me the energy to support my work among the poor. I loved the grace of being among the poorest ones but even more I remember the team and the Masses and sharing of life and faith that was so clear among us”, she said.
“Now I am not able to eat and not able to sleep, much like many refugees and asylum seekers and poor families. Here they give me things for the pain. I send a big love to everyone in JRS all over the world but especially to the ones who have known and loved me and I have known and loved in JRS since 1987. Have courage”, she urged.
A life of service among the poor
In 1987, Marie Jeanne Ath joined the JRS team on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1991, she moved with JRS to Cambodia to help prepare for the return home of refugees. This was a key moment in the history of JRS when a controversial decision was made to work on both sides of a fiercely contested border. The rest of her life was given to service of her people in re-building their lives and their country so torn by conflict.
The major return of refugees occurred in 1993, following which, in 1994 the JRS programme in Cambodia became a local project under the governance of the Jesuits and changed its name to ‘Jesuit Service’. Both Sr Denise and Sr Ath were then loaned by JRS to Jesuit Service. They never lost their links with the JRS network worldwide.
As a key member of JRS and then Jesuit Service, Sr Ath established a large rural development programme in the district of Ang Snuol, not far from the capital, Phnom Penh, which served hundreds of villages. This project helped many families become economically self-sufficient. She also worked closely with the survivors of landmine accidents, where persons with disabilities were offered medical assistance, vocational training and other support to become autonomous.
All along, she contributed to the life of the tiny Cambodian Church, composing songs for the liturgy, training dancers and designing artefacts that would be both liturgically appropriate and true to Cambodian the culture in which she had a deep education. Sr Ath helped re-found the Sisters of Providence in Cambodia, developing their community base and programmes in Phnom Penh.
In 2008, she moved to Battambang province, northwestern Cambodia, where despite growing somewhat physically weaker, she continued to develop new programmes. She took charge of the diocesan clinic where great numbers of rural poor would come to rest while receiving medical treatment in Battambang town. Several times a week she would visit the overcrowded prisons of Battambang, caring especially for thousands in them suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Sr Ath also of course continued to train the choir for the local church, taught new songs and generally was a source of great encouragement and joy to many. Visitors to her little house were treated to a delicious banana flambé, or some other treat. Even to see her smile and the mischievous twinkle in her eye would make a visit worthwhile.
Cambodia suffered greatly between 1975 and 1979, when millions of Cambodians died as the regime tried to impose its version of agrarian socialism in which urban dwellers were forcibly relocated collective farms and forced labour projects.