By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2011
Halfway around the world and immersed in an unfamiliar culture, St. Jude the Apostle parishioner Carmen Hilmes still recognizes the oneness of faith in God.
“The universality of our faith has been awe-inspiring,” said Hilmes, who has been stationed as a missionary in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh since September.
She is serving as part of a group of commissioned Salesian Lay Missioners who are spread throughout the world—this group in Ethiopia, Bolivia and Cambodia—completing one-year mission commitments.
The volunteers received two weeks of orientation at Mary-knoll and a Salesian center in Port Chester, N.Y., followed by a retreat week with Salesians at Haverstraw-Stony Point, N.Y. The 14 missionaries were commissioned during a closing Mass Aug. 6, the feast of the Transfiguration. Salesian Father Thomas Dunne, provincial in the eastern U.S. and Canada, presided.
Father Dunne observed that Peter, James and John had nothing with them when they met God on the mountaintop at the Transfiguration. When the apostles went out to preach the Good News, God was all they had to depend upon; they had to leave behind all their extra “tools,” like extra clothes and money. He told the soon-to-depart missionaries that they also would have to leave a lot behind when they went out to be evangelizers.
This is the first mission experience for Hilmes, 50, who admits that while there are times of struggle, mission work was something she was interested in, even at a young age.
“I think the call has been on my heart since I was very young; however, my life choices changed my path and God has a way of circling our lives back to our dreams,” she wrote by email from Phnom Penh.
The process took about two years from the time she first looked into the possibility to when she arrived at a mission assignment, she said. Hilmes took a leave from her job as operations manager for the TAS Group in Alpharetta, departing Sept. 21 for Phnom Penh, to serve with the Salesian Sisters at the Don Bosco Skills Training Center, teaching young girls.
“The Salesian Sisters, and the ministry they share with the Salesian Missions office, has proved to be very unique in my life—the way they use all the resources in their communities, welcome all who enter their homes, and give from all they have,” wrote Hilmes. “I hope to be able to imitate the lessons learned in my home upon returning to the States.”
The Don Bosco Skills Training Center opened in 1991 when a Salesian priest and a Salesian brother moved there from neighboring Bangkok, Thailand, after the Cambodian royal government invited the Salesians into the country to establish technical schools.
Students take part in programs to learn welding, electricity, electronics, auto mechanics or printing. They follow a two-year curriculum and receive certificates after meeting the standard required by the Cambodian Ministry of Education. Although the school is mainly for young men, a number of young women take part in printing and electronics courses. There are also boarding houses for students coming from distant provinces.
According to Hilmes, the school now serves 200 girls, 70 of them living in a dormitory which can house up to 120 girls.
“These are girls from the villages in Cambodia and they do not have family close to where we are. They go home on holidays,” said Hilmes. “However, we also house 22 girls who have been orphaned or (whose) homes are not a healthy environment. These girls are referred by the outlying parishes, priests or sometimes other family members bring them to us for help.”
At the vocational school, the girls, who have already graduated from high school, spend two years learning general office skills, accounting, English and computers, she said.
“This school only offers help to the poor and to girls who may become the family support by the jobs they will get when they leave here,” Hilmes wrote. “The Sisters/volunteers also find jobs or intern positions for them once they graduate. They have a nice community network.”
A typical day for Hilmes in Phnom Penh begins with Mass at 6:15 a.m. After breakfast, she teaches for approximately five hours. While she stays busy afterward with lesson plans and grading, her schedule also allows for prayer, some personal time and recreation time with her students. Hilmes teaches 24 English classes a week.
“The smiles and joys of the girls I teach” are the greatest blessings, Hilmes said. She also relishes the chance to connect with her fellow missionaries.
“There is a Lay Missioner Mass here on Saturday evenings. I try every week to attend,” she wrote. “The beauty of our faith with the unity we share has been a big inspiration and an amazing experience—a world away from the U.S., but still the same. Relying on God for the unknown has given the word ‘faith’ a new meaning.”
The Southeast Asian nation of 14 million people is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Khmer, French and English are the main languages and Buddhism the religion of over 95 percent of the people. The country, which became independent from France in 1953, has emerged in the last 20 years from decades of suffering and turmoil. In 1975, communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh and evacuated all cities and towns. At least 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside, began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, and touched off almost 13 years of civil war. Since 1991 when Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, there have been UN-sponsored elections and over a period of years renewed political stability. The country has a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Phnom Penh is home to some 1.1 million people.
Hilmes says in her area, “The neighborhoods are a mix of very rich and very poor.”
“I found the people here to be very resourceful. Since homes do not have Internet or TV, on the streets you will see a shop for Internet cubicles at a rate equivalent to 50 cents an hour, and the TV is set up as an open-area restaurant,” said Hilmes. “They sit at tables facing one TV and can watch, buying food or drink.”
Hilmes will return to the United States next July or August, after the school year ends. She has relatives throughout the U.S., from her son and daughter-in-law in Tampa, Fla., to her mother and siblings in Oklahoma, California and across the Southeast and Midwest.
She is inspired by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the saint’s ability to find beauty and a meaningful spiritual path in the little things of life.
It is encouraging “how she prayed for others,” Hilmes said. “Seeing the power of prayer in our lives gives hope and encouragement to the daily events, not living by the big events,” she said. These are lessons she is experiencing herself as she continues to live, work and pray through her mission experience.
“I have learned in mission, we can be mission wherever we are in life. Live to the fullest and give from what you have,” wrote Hilmes. “It will make a difference in the lives you meet, the paths you cross and our walk with Jesus.”
For more information, visit www.salesianlaymissioners.org.