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Catholic nun recalls mission work in third world

Fri, Apr 11th, 2003
Posted in Features

Fr. Francis Galles (left) listens as Sr. Joseen Vogt discusses her work in Cambodia over the past 13 years. Sr. Joseen was speaking at the monthly meeting of the Fillmore County Knights of Columbus on Tuesday evening at St. Lawrence OToole Catholic Church.

Itchy feet. That is the working title of a book Sister Joseen Vogt is planning on writing about her experiences around the world.

When I was leaving Australia, the head master asked me what I was going to do next. I told him that I was going back to Ohio to finish my teaching contract. He laughed at me and said, You wont stay there. Youve got itchy feet.

That was in 1976. The Waseca native, who joined the Sisters of St. Francis in 1940, has spent the last 30 years working in various parts of the world, dedicating her life to training teachers who in turn teach children. She has spent the past 13 years working in Western Cambodia in a school she helped to create.

Sr. Joseen, who presently resides at Assisi Heights in Rochester, spoke at the monthly meeting of the Fillmore County Knights of Columbus, Tuesday night at St. Lawrence OToole Catholic Church.

I am keeping my coat on, Sr. Joseen told the assembled. There is a big difference between 95 and 20. She was referring to the relative temperatures of Battambang in Western Cambodia and snowy Fountain, Minnesota in April.

In 1977, after her two year stint in Australia teaching at a World Vision school near Melbourne, Sister Joseen went to Sierre Leone and spent the next ten years working as an educator with the Peace Corps. Joseen said that it was during her time in Sierre Leone that she became committed to teacher education in the third world. By helping teachers she believed that she would be helping children build a brighter future.

In Cambodia, more than 50% of the population is 15 years or younger, Sr. Joseen explained to her Knights of Columbus audience. That puts tremendous pressure and stress on education, then on jobs. Who is going to teach these children? Their teachers need to be trained.

After her decade in Africa, the diminutive nun worked briefly in a Philippine refugee camp before finding herself on the Cambodian-Thai border in a refugee camp called Site Two. At that time, there were more than 500,000 Cambodians living along the border, preparing to return to the embattled country.

While in Thailand, Sr. Joseen worked for the Catholic Office of Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) operating a program that was helping to prepare teachers who would be teaching when they returned to Cambodia.

Sr. Joseen talked about the Killing Fields and how in the years between 1975-1979, the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime tortured, starved and killed more than a million of its own people.

If you were educated, if you were a landowner, if you were wealthy, or owned a shop, you were the first to go, Sr. Joseen said.

In 1992, COERR was asked to build, staff and maintain an English language school in Battambang Province, as part of the rebuilding effort taking place in Cambodia.

Sr. Joseen designed the school and supervised its construction. She then wrote the curriculum and was the schools director for the next six years.

Up until the late 90s, Battambang was located in close proximity to Khmer Rouge held territory and Sr. Joseen was forced to evacuate the school on three occasions.

The first time was during elections when there was violence; the second was when rebels (Khmer Rouge) were firing in and around Battambang; and the third, when Hun Sen, the present Prime Minister, staged a coup de etat, Sr. Joseen said.

In 1999 Sr. Joseen turned over the directorship of the school to a Cambodian man by the name of Sotith Srun.

Having just returned from Cambodia after five months of teaching, Sr. Joseen has been on the campaign trail hoping to raise enough funds to sponsor Mr. Sruns coming to the U.S. for further study. Thus, her meeting with the Fillmore County Knights of Columbus, who are considering responding in some way to Sr. Joseens appeal.

Sr. Joseen says that Cambodia is seemingly stable right now, although she notes that there are upcoming elections, usually a volatile time in the country.

The Fransican nun doesnt see herself as a missionary in the classical sense, but feels shes done more by helping the poor.

When asked what she will do if she is successful in raising the funds to sponsor Sotith to come to America, Sr. Joseen was quick to respond, Well, I would go teach in Cambodia of course.

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