Aventures missionaire

Tha Rae, birthplace and refuge for persecuted MEP priests

Publié le 14/02/2024

Less well known in France than the famous Karen villages, Tha Rae remains a celebrated location for MEP missionaries in Thailand. This town with 10,000 inhabitants, where Claire and Amaury were sent, respectively, in July and August 2023, shelters the largest Catholic community in the country.
En mission avec les Soeurs de la Charité

En mission avec les Soeurs de la Charité


The incredible history of this fishing village located to the north of one of the largest lakes in the region is closely linked to that of the MEP. As it happens, at the beginning of the mission in Laos and Siam at the end of the 19th century, MEP Fathers Guego and Prodhomme founded in Sakhon Nakhon – the large city to the south of the lake – a Catholic community that brought together Vietnamese émigrés, marginalized people and freed slaves . For political reasons, the authorities of Sakhon Nakhon took a dim view of the emergence of this community and prohibited any contact between the local faithful and French priests. Persecution followed, and then, in November 1884, the Catholics decided to set sail.One night, they dismantled the planks of their wooden houses, assembled rafts and crossed the eleven kilometres of water separating them from the north shore of the lake. There they founded the village of Tha Rae, and immediately constructed a chapel in honour of Saint Michael the Archangel. One hundred and fifty years later, this chapel became St. Michael’s Cathedral of Tha Rae and its slender shape – like the prow of a ship – reminds residents of the story of their origins. Anxious to take care of this promising community, which numbered some 150 Catholics and around 700 catechumens in 1885, the MEP sent a young 23-year-old priest, Joseph Combourieu, to Tha Rae. He, arriving straight from his native Cantal, remained in Tha Rae until his death in 1939, filling the role of priest, town planner and village chief. Naturally, Father Combourieu has become a local legend and his photo features prominently at Tha Rae school, where we teach.


With the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres

Our mission, which reconnects with MEPs in this diocese, allows us to imagine the astonishment that our glorious predecessors experienced. In fact, from the moment we arrived, we were immersed in the excitement of this Catholic microcosm in a Buddhist land. The Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres, who welcomed us, made sure to introduce us to almost all of the local clergy, proudly explaining that we came from the Paris Foreign Missions. After five months of meeting ecclesiastics from the diocese and from all orders – Dominicans, Redemptorists, Capuchins, Lovers of the Cross, etc. – we are finally beginning to get our bearings regarding the complexity of the Church here. Often, when people see the crosses we carry around our necks, the teasing begins: ‘Why aren’t you at the seminary? Have you thought about the vocation of a nun?’ So many questions that Thais are not afraid to ask in public, simply asking questions that we, as good Frenchmen, tend to treat with kid gloves.

It has to be said that the feeling of belonging to a community is very strong here, because the Catholic faith in this country involves renouncing an omnipresent Buddhism tinged with animism. Although consecrated vocations are declining here as elsewhere, the minor seminary has dozens of members and most of the nuns we meet are caring for cohorts of novices. In all the Christian houses we visit, a picture of the Virgin Mary sits above the door, sometimes accompanied by the Pope or the bishop, as well as the royal family, which is so important in Thailand. However, the heart of our mission is not to visit the diocese but teaching at St. Joseph’s School in Tha Rae. In this private Catholic institution managed by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, we teach English and French to some eight hundred students. It’s great to have the opportunity to work as a duo, because it really takes two to understand how this big school in the middle of the rice fields functions, where we work alongside around sixty Thai and Filipino teachers. After classes, we spend our evenings with the forty or so boarders, alternating between English lessons and card games.


Sister Stella

It’s not possible to describe our mission without telling you about our legendary local partner. ‘Mysister’ as she is known here, who fought for months against the Thai bureaucracy to bring and welcome us, two MEP volunteers, to the school. A native of the region, and at the age of 79, she has boundless energy that she has been putting to the service of education for a very long time. Thanks to the motherly attention she gives us, no two days on the mission are the same. For example, one evening, after praying vespers together in French, she simply asked us to direct the school Christmas choir. Nothing less than the biggest show of the year at Tha Rae. Feeling very embarrassed, because neither of us has any experience in this area, we accepted the challenge. Twenty days later, we sang The Divine Child Is Born in front of a Thai crowd that was curious to see two young Farang people joining Sister Stella from St. Joseph’s School in Tha Rae at this regional festival.


Paul-Amaury Brault and Claire Arnal,  MEP volunteers