Bishop dedicates Vietnamese Martyrs, largest Vietnamese Catholic parish in U.S.

Story and Photos by

Juan Guajardo

Correspondent

January 11, 2012

Parishioners of Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Arlington process into their new building to worship there for the first time.

Editor's Note: More photos are available at the North Texas Catholic's Facebook page, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Almost two hours before the dedication of the new Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Arlington, Mary Nguyen and her brother, James Nguyen, braved the chilly morning weather to admire the outside of their church. After taking in the 75-foot bell tower, the large marble and granite statues depicting the stations of the cross lining the sidewalks, and the elegant oriental architecture with traces of Western and Spanish design, Mary Nguyen could only summon two words to describe it: “It’s beautiful.”

Indeed, those two words could sweetly sum up the splendor of the massive 29,000-square-foot church dedicated and consecrated by Bishop Kevin Vann Dec. 10 before a gathering of more than 3,000 parishioners, benefactors, priests, religious, and Arlington city officials.

“I’m very proud of it,” said Mary Nguyen, who along with her brother has been a parishioner of Vietnamese Martyrs for 10 years and has received most of her sacraments there. “I’m excited about going to church here.”

With 2,000 seats and various offices, the $6.5 million building is the largest-capacity Vietnamese Catholic church in the United States, according to Father Polycarp Duc Thuan, CMC, who has been pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs since 2007. Built in only 15 months, it’s a space that will serve a very necessary purpose, as the parish has grown to 1,600 families and during the four weekend Masses can have attendance totaling up to 4,000 people, Fr. Duc Thuan added.

A statue of Our Lady of La Vang stands tall in front of the entrance to the new church.

“[The parishioners] are very happy, they’re very happy to have a new church — a beautiful church,” Fr. Duc Thuan said. “They’re very surprised, they cannot imagine how it can be like this.”

With the construction of the new building, the previous sanctuary — a 900-seat converted Food Lion grocery store that sits on the same 12-acre property — will serve as a parish hall, auditorium, and classrooms for the 1,100 students attending religious education classes at the parish.

“We just needed more space,” parishioner Johnson Le, 26, said. “We needed more space, and now we actually have a real church, a real sacred place to worship, whereas the old building was a renovation from a supermarket.”

Le, a youth group leader and parishioner for 15 years, says he is proud that the new church gives the Catholic Vietnamese community more visibility.

“It means a lot for the Vietnamese community not just here but across the U.S. saying that we have a place to worship, we have a place to come together, to celebrate, to worship God and to give thanks — especially leaving the homeland from Vietnam and then coming over here, and yet we’re still able to come together and celebrate and worship,” Le said. “And it shows that… the faith is not dead…. And you can see it with this new structure here; you show people that ‘Hey, the faith is alive and it continues to grow throughout the generations.’”

On the day of the dedication, thousands of parishioners waited excitedly outside the church in the chilly weather as a long procession of parishioners dressed in traditional Vietnamese dress, diocesan and visiting priests, deacons, altar servers and Bishop Vann and Bishop Dominic Mai Thanh Luong, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange in Orange County, California, proceeded through the crowds. Bishop Vann blessed the statue of Our Lady of La Vang, the shrine of St. Joseph, and various other statues — statues that took Vietnamese craftsmen up to two years to carve. He then proceeded to cut the ceremonial ribbon with other representatives of the community amid fireworks and applause.

Parishioners gasped audibly in awe as they followed Bishop Vann and the procession into the new building built with 750,000 pounds of marble and granite cut in Vietnam, and into the nave filled with pews made of American oak expertly crafted in Vietnam, and lined with stained glass windows depicting the 117 Vietnamese Martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

“A long time ago… they did not accept Christians in the country, so they try to kill them…. [They] died because they keep the Catholic faith. They didn’t want to deny, they didn’t want to throw the cross away,” parishioner and vice chairman of the pastoral council, Joe Nguyen, said of the approximately 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics, priests, and missionaries killed in the 19th and 20th centuries. “That’s why all the stained-glass windows here represent our Vietnamese Martyrs saints for our generation, [so] our children will be proud some of the Vietnamese who stood up for the faith of the Catholic Church.”

Parishioners carry a processional tabernacle bearing the Eucharist in a monstrance into the church at the beginning of the Mass.

A large, intricate painting of Our Lady of La Vang, who appeared to persecuted Vietnamese Catholics during the late 18th century to comfort them as they sought refuge deep in the jungles of Vietnam, graced one end of the church. At the front was a large, elegant white marble altar underneath the crucifix and a giant stained-glass window depicting the resurrected Lord.

Bishop Vann passed through the main body of the church and sprinkled holy water on the tall, granite walls and the people, who filled every seat in the pews of the nave, chapel, and cry room.

During his homily, Bishop Vann told the audience to give thanks and glory to God for the gift of faith and the gift of a new church, which will provide a place to keep nourishing that faith.

“St. Paul speaks of the living temple of God, in this temple of God he is present right now and forever after,” Bishop Vann said. “We lay a foundation for our lives now and into the future, and each stone in this house of God, each statue, each sacred object, each piece of stained-glass — everything — is a reminder of each of you here today, of your love, of your sacrifice, and of your generosity, without which this would not be possible.”

He continued, “We rejoice in the Lord today, we give glory to God for the vision and generosity of the Vietnamese families who came here to Arlington years ago to begin this parish family, to begin this community of faith, and for you whose faith and love and vision have made this house of God possible. You brought them with you from Vietnam, your faith, your love, and your strength and your courage — they live here today.”

Bishop Vann proceeded to pray the dedication and then anointed and incensed the altar and church to consecrate the building to God. The congregation burst into applause as ministers turned on the lights in the church for the first time in the ceremony. Near the end of the ceremony, relics of the Vietnamese Martyrs were placed in the chapel.

Bishop Kevin Vann cuts the ribbon for the new church, as Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of Orange County, California, the first Vietnamese bishop in the United States, looks on.

The pride and gratitude of the parishioners for their new church shone through at the reception, during which parish representatives gave thanks to God, Bishop Vann, benefactors, and all those in attendance.

The now-thriving community — composed of three generations of parishioners — began with only about a dozen families who came to the U.S. sponsored by Catholic Charities after fleeing the communist Vietnamese regime after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, said Joe Nguyen, vice chairman of the pastoral council.

“When Vietnam fell, nobody know where to go, so we jumped on a boat and went to the ocean,” Fr. Duc Thuan said, telling how he and other refugees on that packed boat were later rescued by an American ship, taken to the Philippines and eventually brought to the U.S. “It was very dangerous. No water, no food; we left everything behind.”

Shortly after being relocated, many refugees became parishioners of St. Matthew Church in Arlington. There they found a home where they could thank God, grow in faith, and stabilize their lives, helping each other overcome language barriers and cultural differences. As more than half a million refugees escaped Vietnam, many were relocated to North Texas and the small Vietnamese Catholic community at St. Matthew continued to grow.

By 1998, the community — numbering 514 families — with permission from the diocese, bought the former Food Lion store at 801 E. Mayfield Road and was established as a parish by the late Bishop Joseph Delaney in June 2000.

Hung Nguyen, a member of the parish since it was based in St. Matthew, expressed gratitude for the new church and for the help the community received from the very beginning — when they left Vietnam “with empty hands.”

“Day by day we [had] each other and we grew up everything, and now we have 1,600 families over the span of 36 years…. Now we’re very happy with the new church,” Nguyen said.

Vietnamese Martyrs pastor Father Polycarp Duc Thuan, CMC, rubs oil on the walls of the new church, blessing it.

By 2008, Vietnamese Martyrs parish had grown to 1,250 families. Responding to that growth, the community began to plan and raise money for the new building that same year, said Joe Nguyen. With $1.5 million already saved, an additional $3.5 million raised by parishioners and businesses in the community, and with a now-$1.5 million loan from the diocese, construction began in July 2010, he said.

“Everybody wanted to get a new church and everything, so everybody was very excited [to donate],” finance council member Hoc Pham said. “So today we see everybody coming out and showing up. Everybody loves it.”

Pham said many families gave a $3,000 donation through a five-year payment plan. Additionally, the parish raised money by hosting Vietnamese New Year’s fundraisers and participating in cookouts at Marian Day in Missouri at the campus of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix. Through a one-day fundraiser in September 2010, the parish raised $750,000, Fr. Duc Thuan said.

Father Louis Nhien, provincial superior of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix and former parochial vicar of Vietnamese Martyrs, said the contributions from so many people show the unity of the church. “So that unity built up that church,” he said. “Not only is that a sign of physical unity but spiritual unity too. I think that is a great sign to show the Catholic faith.”

As the celebration and reception wound down several hours later, handfuls of parishioners kept returning to the new church to admire it and pray in it.

“I feel very reverent and I feel very happy when I come into church, and I also feel lifted up, so I can feel God, so it’s very nice,” said Fr. Duc Thuan while he stood in the church, as if reading his parishioners’ minds.

Almost two hours before the dedication of the new Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Arlington, Mary Nguyen and her brother, James Nguyen, braved the chilly morning weather to admire the outside of their church. After taking in the 75-foot bell tower, the large marble and granite statues depicting the stations of the cross lining the sidewalks, and the elegant oriental architecture with traces of Western and Spanish design, Mary Nguyen could only summon two words to describe it: “It’s beautiful.”

Published (until 12/3/2114)
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