“Do anything three times if possible,” goes my motto as a forty-something. Publish three books or articles on different topics but a common theme. Or, dance to three different songs but the same genre from the same period. Or, write three blog posts about the same subject matter in a row. Three books and articles I haven’t achieved. But I’ve done the dancing bit and now I am doing the third thing. My last two blog posts are about Vietnamese Catholic refugees in the U.S. during the 1970s and the 1980s, and this post rounds up the miniseries.
From the Vietnamese-language materials that I’ve seen, I was struck by (a) the overall energy and significance of Catholic priests among the 1975 wave of refugees, and (b) the rapidity that they and the refugee laity tried in creating ethnic-religious organizations. I suspect there was something similar among Protestant, Buddhist, and Cao Dai refugees, but also one or more major differences when it comes to the presence of their clergy. Given my less familiarity about them, however, I shall restrain from making generalizations.
On the first point, it is not uncommon to see priests being described in these sources as “young” (trẻ), “energetic” (hăng hái), “devoted” (tận tình), and the likes. The adjectives could have applied to another group of Vietnamese priests in another place or another time. But in this case they also indicate a particular historical moment. The Fall of Saigon was sudden and dramatic, and adjustment to life in America was tinged with lingering grief, ongoing anxiety, and continual uncertainty about the future of their loved ones in Vietnam.
It was into this heightened atmosphere and situation that the refugee priests, who experienced grief and uncertainty of their own, rose to the occasion. Some, for examples, drove over long distances on weekends to say mass and hear confessions. All of them became mediators and negotiators between the Vietnamese and American styles and traditions of Catholicism. It was a demanding position, even exhausting.
The fact that many of them, probably most, were “young” wasn’t an accident of history. For a start, it was harder for an older priest, especially pastors and superiors in a religious order, to have left his parish or congregation when South Vietnam fell to the communists. For another, there were already some Vietnamese priests and religious in the U.S. and Canada, mainly in pursuit of higher education or training, and they tended to be younger in age. I haven’t been able to locate an exact number, but apparently there were enough diocesan priests and members of religious orders (including nuns) in 1970 that they formed an organization called Cộng Đồng Tu Sĩ Việt Nam tại Mỹ Châu: Community of [Catholic] Vietnamese Clergy and Religious Members in [North] America.
Not surprisingly, the membership of the organization rose quickly and dramatically after the Fall of Saigon. By early 1977, there were about 160 priests and nearly 400 seminarians and members of religious orders. (It is not clear how many of them were nuns, although there were at least three women religious orders in 1977: one each in Philadelphia, Houston, and Fresno, Calif.) The sizable number of priests and religious was crucial in forming ethnic Catholic communities.
A report in 1977, for example, states that there were “nearly 20 priests” in California, and that Catholic communities in the state, especially Orange County, were vibrant. It goes so far to say that some of the Vietnamese masses drew as many as 2000 people: an estimate clearly in need of clarification or qualification because most Catholic churches wouldn’t have fit all those people. But it isn’t completely wrong in giving the impression of capacity crowds at Sunday masses and other religious services such as Marian parades.
Active too were communities in New Orleans, Port Arthur, Houston, Arlington (Texas), Seattle, and Portland, Ore. The presence of refugee priests also played a crucial role among the faithful in smaller communities, including Buffalo, Reading, Richmond, Norfolk, Birmingham, Atlanta, Savannah, Pensacola, Cincinnati, Lincoln, Fort Smith, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Rapid City. Today it may be hard to imagine that a number of Vietnamese used to live in the western part of North Dakota. But there were an unspecified number of them in the Diocese of Rapids City, including two Vietnamese priests.
The formation and development of these ethnic-religious communities depended on a host of factors and was therefore uneven. Most of the refugees in Rapid City, for example, later moved elsewhere, likely for reasons of climate and especially proximity to other Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. On the day following Christmas Day 1977, indeed, one of the two priests moved to the Archdiocese of Minneapolis – St. Paul to serve as chaplain of the larger Catholic community there. I think the same occurred in upstate New York and Reading. In St. Louis, there were about 100 Catholics among 200 refugees – a very high percentage – and they met for a Vietnamese mass every two months. According to the Vietnamese chaplain, however, some of the refugees have been leaving for elsewhere: a fact that prompted the priest to consider moving to a larger Vietnamese community himself so he could serve them better.
But not all of the small communities. The community in Savannah is still small but retains a noticeable presence in the diocese. More problematic was the situation in Michigan, where the refugees were spread out somewhat far apart, and they never cohered into a particular community. The fact that there wasn’t a single Vietnamese priest in the state – or, more precisely, no successful effort by the Catholic dioceses to draw one to the state – played a role in this outcome.
[Edit 9/16/2017: The situation in Michigan must have changed dramatically by the 1990s, if not before. A Vietnamese parish, the St. Andrew Dũng Lạc, was created in 1998. Three years later, it moved to a larger location, the former Holy Cross Parish, which had been closed.]
These various local histories of the Catholic refugees remain in broad strokes at this time. Hopefully we will learn more about at least a few them in the future. In particular, I’d like to know more about their financial situation, a subject on which details are scant. From the little I’ve seen, it’s fair to say that the Catholics, like their fellow non-Catholic refugees, had very little and were careful in deliberating how much and to whom they donated.
One small record that I’ve come across has to do with a group of Catholic refugees in Washington, DC during 1975-1976. As early as July 11, 1975, or ten weeks after the Fall of Saigon, they gathered at the Epiphany Catholic Church for mass. They paid $50 for using the church building, and another $100 for the reception afterwards. Between January and May of the following year, they had a monthly gathering and paid a now-reduced fee of $35. The reason was given that “the pastor discounted $15 because there wasn’t enough money from the collection plate” during mass. They also put together a special Christmas celebration, purchased a sound system that cost nearly $1000, and spent several hundreds of dollars on publishing an irregularly issued magazine to be distributed for free. The chaplain of the community served as publisher of the magazine, and he was assisted by at least another Vietnamese priest.
It did not take too long, however, before the community encountered financial difficulties. Between July 1975 and June 1976, the total expenses came to $3732.23 while the community’s income was only $1378.09. The latter included donations from Catholic Charities and the Holy Cross Parish. Plate collections and donations from the Vietnamese were very small, and the discrepancy meant that over $2300 would be “taken care by Fr. Director Nguyễn Văn Nguyên.” Without further evidence, it’s not possible to determine how Fr. Nguyên took care of the difference. But the magazine, which appears to have been well received by readers in the U.S. (on the basis of their letters), ceased publication not long afterwards. The assistant priest was assigned to New York City in May 1976, and the chaplain also received a new assignment the following month.
I don’t know the aftermath of Fr. Nguyên’s departure. But the financial situation and the absence of a more permanent priest probably paused the development of the community in the city of Washington, DC, if for a short time. There were at least two other priests that served as chaplain to the refugees before Fr. Nguyễn Thanh Long, who was not yet 40 years old when he came to the Archdiocese.
From one account that I’ve read, Fr. Long (later Monsignor Long) sounds like a very strong and zealous character, who nonetheless went through considerable shock and depression over the Fall of Saigon. In March 1976, however, he was together enough to begin forming the Catholic refugee community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Later that year, according to another source, he went on to “university training” and “passed” on the chaplaincy to another Vietnamese priest for university. By 1979 (and possibly sooner), he was back to ministry among the refugees, albeit in Rockville, Maryland, which has been a part of the Archdiocese of Washington. In September 1979, the Archdiocese formally created a mission (đặc xứ, which is not yet a parish) for the Vietnamese called Nữ Vương Việt Nam: Our Lady of Vietnam. Fr. Long was appointed its first pastor, and in 1990, the refugees under his leadership eventually obtained permission from Cardinal Hickey, the Archdiocese’s prelate, for their own parish.
The church was constructed at a site in Silver Spring and opened in 1993 with one floor. The second floor was completed in 2000. As you can see from the photo above, its exterior includes elements from the Vietnamese architectural tradition. It should be noted that a brand new church in the DC metro area was very expensive, and Fr. Long travelled the country and raised funds among his co-religious to support his dream church for the Vietnamese Catholics in DC. He was persuasive enough that a group of Buddhist young adults in Chicago pledged to send $50 each month for two years.
For the refugees in the adjacent Diocese of Arlington (Virginia), they were successful sooner in founding their own parish. In the summer of 1979, or four years after the Fall of Saigon, they purchased a small Methodist church building in Annadale. The church was converted to Catholic form, apparently with a great deal of volunteer work from the Vietnamese faithful. Called Các Thánh Tử Vì Đạo Việt Nam, The Holy Martyrs of Vietnam, it was consecrated by the local bishop in August. I am not completely sure if it were the first Vietnamese Catholic parish in the U.S., but it was certainly among the very first ones.
A major reason for the success of this parish was the priest who became its first appointed pastor: Fr. Trần Duy Nhất. A former chaplain in the South Vietnamese military – his highest rank was captain – he was active in mobilizing the refugees, both Catholics and non-Catholics, towards political protests. One source from 1977 reports that on June 11, 1977, some 2000 Vietnamese from metro DC staged a “waking night” (đêm canh thức) to “protest religious persecution and demand the Vietnamese government to free immediately hundreds of thousands of [former] South Vietnamese” in reeducation camps. Although no particular names appear, it’s most likely that Fr. Nhất was involved in the organization of the event. Another news source names him and Fr. Long as two of four priests that concelebrated mass for the faithful from the Diocese of Arlington and the Archdiocese of Washington during a day-long pilgrimage to the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on August 19, 1978. In short, the histories of the two parishes diverged in some important respects, but there was also collaboration in certain matters, especially devotion during a very emotionally, economically, and culturally difficult time.
Unlike Fr. Long who lived until he was seventy-one, Fr. Nhất died suddenly in 1984 at the age of forty-three. By then, however, the founding of the parish was completed. It was later moved to a new building in Arlington, which was constructed with a few features from Vietnamese architecture. Interestingly, the Vietnamese in Arlington came there merely one year after the Diocese was created. Their history and the history of the Diocese, therefore, were closely intertwined.
The fact that many refugee priests, and possibly the vast majority, were relatively young in 1975 – Fr. Nhất was 34, Monsignor Long 38, and Fr. Trần Văn Khoát, the subject of my previous post, 36 – played a very large role in the formation of communities among the 1975 wave and the “boat people” wave of Catholic refugees.
For sure, age and energy alone do not explain for their importance in this history. I discern at least three other reasons: the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church; the elevation of the priesthood and religious life in the Vietnamese Catholic tradition; and the unusual shock over the loss of South Vietnam. There is probably more, making this history more complex than it has been known so far.