Maryknoll missionary takes faith, desire to serve to Cambodia

| October 9, 2019 | 0 Comments

Maria Montello helps Sakona, a student at Royal University of Phnom Penh, count votes at the end of Toastmaster-esque presentations in this 2015 photo. COURTESY MARIA MONTELLO

After teaching math to students with learning disabilities as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Portland, Oregon, from 1995 to 1996, Maryknoll lay missionary Maria Montello says she was hooked on the desire to serve others, though in some respects she held it at bay for a while.

“They say that if you do JVC you’re ‘ruined for life,’ that the call to direct service to the disenfranchised is firmly planted in your heart. It took 15 years for me to respond to that call again,” she said.

Instead of waiting for retirement to serve, Montello, 46, of St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis, changed course from her job in information technology to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy and then in 2011 to do missionary work teaching philosophy.

For the last eight years, she has taught philosophy and critical thinking at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Her contract with Maryknoll runs through May 2021, but it could be extended. Financial help comes from a number of sources, including the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

It’s been difficult but rewarding service, Montello said in a series of email exchanges, in part because she came to teach critical thinking, and in Cambodia it is socially unacceptable to debate or to disagree.

“My students had never been asked, ‘What do you believe?’ Ever. What I came to teach, my students were not prepared to study,” she said. “What I came to teach was counter-cultural. It was going to be a long haul. And it has been.”

But Montello said she stresses with students the need to think critically, to make good decisions, because bad ideas can lead to bad actions, even disasters. An example she cites for the students is the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when an idea to make all Cambodians equal turned into a campaign to eliminate the educated and the genocidal deaths of 2 million people, about 25 percent of the country’s population.

Living in faith

Montello said she can’t talk about her faith at the university, which is similar to the expectations at a secular university in the United States. But she lives her faith in the respect she shows each student, and in her expectations of them in the classroom.

Cambodia is 98% Buddhist and 0.5% Christian. Montello belongs to a Catholic parish in Phnom Penh where the congregation speaks English. She also attends Mass at a Khmer Catholic church, where the congregation sits on the floor, sings in Khmer, uses a gong to mark the elevation of the Eucharist and incense sticks instead of candles — all noteworthy examples of the Church’s efforts at contextualization.

The Maryknoll community in Phnom Penh is “wonderful and unique,” Montello said, with priests, religious sisters and lay missionaries working elbow to elbow, many on the same mission projects. They meet weekly for Mass and a dinner, celebrate holidays together and gather for pastoral and theological reflections.

Ready to serve

While faith is not openly discussed in the classroom, opportunities to help students in a Christian manner abound, Montello said. Such as helping a blind student in 2013 named Navy (Nah-vee). People with disabilities in Cambodia are largely ignored, and some are even treated harshly, in part because some believe that the person must have been bad in a former life and reincarnated in a “lesser form,” Montello said. Others view disability as a curse delivered to a family by someone with a grudge or owed a debt.

Consequently, there are no services for the blind at any university in Cambodia, Montello said. In fact, she did not know a blind student would be in her classroom until the day Navy arrived. Montella decided to read and record reading assignments and sit with Navy during tests and at other times she could help.

“I didn’t need to press any student into ‘service’ in helping Navy when we did things that required vision; students took her under their wing on their own,” Montello said. “It was wonderful to witness.”

As to her own faith in helping Navy and others through her missionary work, that is played out every day, Montello said.

“I suppose it’s like asking a fish, ‘What part does water play in your day-to-day life?’” she said.

Montello said she has been told that Navy is now a teacher in a “special high school,” which likely means for students who are blind or have some other learning challenges.

“It is so rare that a person like her can make it through the university and then find employment,” Montello said. “So, that’s good news about Navy.”

Sharing the news

Last year, Montello published through Jesuit Service Cambodia a children’s tale about disabilities, beautifully illustrated, that also impacts adults titled “The Gift.”

It is about a Cambodian man who wishes for a child who can make his life easier. When he discovers that his son has developmental disabilities, the man feels cursed. But over time, his son brings him joy, the man’s carpentry work improves and villagers are generous in their help.

Many years pass, and the man on his death bed is with his son, surrounded by friends, customers and a neighbor who whispers in his ear, “Your son is a gift to us. He will be one of our own.”

Montello said she wrote the book to share the message in Cambodia and beyond of the inherent worth of all people. The message is spreading, she said, with the Jesuits printing 3,000 copies in the Khmer language that are making their way into schools across Cambodia and being sold to nonprofit organizations. It was picked up by the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, which featured it at a United Nations Human Rights Day event. And it will be included in a “toolkit” produced by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education for use in public schools.

An English edition is also available through Montello at for a $10 donation (PayPal is easiest) that will help her continue her missionary work, Montello said.

When Montello talks about her work at parishes, she reminds people that everyone is on mission.

“Every time you get out of bed to rock to sleep a crying baby or hold your child having a bad dream, you are ‘missioning,’” she said. “Every time you reach out to a coworker who seems to be having a bad day … personal struggles, etc., you are being a missioner.

“Your life is no different than mine. I would venture to guess your life is much more difficult than mine — more complex, more frantic, more stressful.

“Join me in mission.”

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Category: World Mission Sunday