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The Catholic mission in Laos

After several unfruitful attempts to penetrate Laos in the first half of the XIXth Century Mgr Vey, Vicar Apostolic to Siam, sent new missionaries in 1876. Father Prodhomme and Father Perraux travelled up the Menam Sak, and founded the small station of Hua-Keng or Keng-Khoi. Father Prodhomme, sorely afflicted by Tsutsugamushi disease, left for Chantaboun for the sake of his health, where he met Father Guégo. The two men left Bangkok on 12 January 1881. After a difficult journey they arrived in Oubone on 24 April. Having been well received by the authorities, they established themselves on insalubrious land, reputed to be inhabited by spirits, and started to clear the land. Their living conditions were very difficult.

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“My goodness, how the first days of this separation seemed long and painful! A poor little missionary, as yet inexperienced in the language and customs of the country, I found myself at the head of our little band. Nevertheless I set to work with a full heart and, with my catechist, I started to teach my people [...] I was able to free two families from the hands of their unjust keepers, but there was still a great difficulty, namely that of feeding all my small world. On leaving my colleague gave me 180 francs, and with this I had to feed myself and all my poor people, more than thirty of them, until his return, that is for more than three months. Here borrowing seemed to me impossible, dishonourable in the highest degree […] already my everyday fare was none too tasty. I was already cutting it back a little to give a little stew to my new-comers. I started eating entirely Laotian food, namely a large bowlful of rice cooked in water, some vegetables and a little preserved fish; preserved as they say here and rotten as they would say in France and quite rightly so as it is literally revolting and stinks, but according to the Laotians, the more it smells the better it is […] The first mouthfuls of such food went down with difficulty and I closed my eyes so as not to see the worms wiggling amongst these so-called preserved fish. Really! I said to myself for encouragement, because you are in Laos, you must follow the customs, you won’t die from it! However sometimes my stomach could not take these preserved fish and I vomited them up, then the fever also came to give its veto and lasted a month. When it had left me, I went back to eating the preserved fish and oh what joy! I no longer vomited and felt very well…. Thanks to these small savings I was able to feed all the poor people around me and my two families, and when my colleague arrived I still had 15 francs.” (Father Guégo)

The rumour spread that the missionaries bought back slaves and the mission developed gradually. At the end of 1885 there were 463 Christians. Sometimes there were tensions with the local authorities who found that the missionaries diverted the population from their duties and the payment of taxes, and in reprisal forbade anyone to sell them rice. Father Prodhomme was everywhere, checking, managing and encouraging. As soon as a danger threatened Christendom he called on the local mandarin and then the provincial governor and sometimes as far as Bangkok to obtain recompense.

In August 1980 Father Prodhomme welcomed Pavie to Oubone. Lefèvre-Pontalis stressed the prudence of the missionaries towards the Siamese. "Not knowing precisely how Laos is viewed in France and what objective France plans to follow there, they are avoiding committing themselves." He also dwelt on the difficulties of the daily life. "Care of the temporal interests of their Christendom, the battle for life which involves work in the rice paddies and the purchase of rice when the harvest is poor, the few resources the missionaries have and their small number all prevent them from applying themselves as they would wish to the intellectual training of their Christians."

However the Laos mission suffered from the poor relations between France and Siam. From 1886 onwards Mgr Vey was worried and wrote to Father Péan. "Our missions in these far-off regions are like a bird on a branch that the hunter sees and can kill if he wants. From the moment that, by imprudence, we wound the government of Siam, all will be in danger because, if they want, they have the means to act against us in an underhand manner, if they think it better not to act openly." The missionaries voluntarily took a back seat. "France has appointed a vice-consul to Luang Prabang," wrote Mgr Vey, "the holder of the post who is in Bangkok would have liked to have missionaries for companions. It is true that it would not be prudent to grant his request immediately [...]." For some Siamese the Batluang (missionary) was a spy, the precursor of French occupation. "All this is full of danger for us and, if there was a scandal, there would be no hesitation in letting the blame fall on the Christians and on us, then the small Laotian mission which seems to be going well would be snuffed out and destroyed in its cradle..." wrote Father Dabin to Father Péan in April 1889. In the eyes of the religious the only thing that counted was evangelization. "My authority as a missionary" wrote Father Prodhomme "must be and always be above that of the French."

The greatest number of conversions took place between 1885 and 1890. In 1899 the more than 7000-strong Christian community was founded for good and the Apostolic Vicariate of Laos was created.