The year 1975 was the most prominent marker of the history of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. For my current research, however, the year 1977 was just as important, even a touch more important than 1975. Why? Because 1977 saw the publication of not one but two important monthlies by Catholic refugees. These magazines have been crucial in helping me understand the history of Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. For this reason, I wish to acknowledge the fortieth anniversary of their publication before this year is over.
The first monthly is Dân Chúa – The People of God – and it came out of New Orleans, which had, possibly, the largest number of Vietnamese Catholic refugees during the late 1970s. The publisher was the Rev. Nguyễn Đức Việt Châu, SSS, a member of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr. Việt Châu was in fact the first Vietnamese to be ordained a priest in this religious order. He studied at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) and came back to South Vietnam after ordination in 1972. A refugee after the Fall of Saigon, he was asked to transfer his membership to the U.S. province of his congregation. Along with a host of other Catholic refugees, notably the editor (and layman) Đỗ La Lam that had considerable experience in journalism in South Vietnam, Fr. Việt Châu began publishing this monthly in February 1977.
The second monthly appeared ten months later, just in time for Christmas: Trái Tim Đức Mẹ, or The [Immaculate] Heart of Our Lady. (The Vietnamese words for “immaculate heart” are trái tim vô nhiễm nguyên tội, but they would have been too long for a magazine’s title.) More accurately, it wasn’t a new magazine like DC but the re-issue of an older one. For TTĐM had been published in South Vietnam for years under the direction of the Congregation of the Mother Redeemer (previously the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix). In fact, the last issue of the South Vietnamese run (below) came out in the same month of the Fall of Saigon. Expectedly, the magazine was not allowed to continue under the postwar regime. But thanks to a relatively sizable exodus of this congregation’s members, the magazine found a second life at the US headquarter of the congregation in Missouri. Today DC has gone completely online, but TTĐM still offers hard copies in addition to its online edition.
Although each monthly had its distinctive features, there were also some commonalities. They included reflections on Sunday readings, Q&A columns on church teachings, and news about global Catholicism, the Catholic Church in Vietnam, and Vietnamese Catholic communities in the U.S. (DC was especially good on the last category.) The promotion of Marian devotion was another similarity. In honor of the fortieth anniversary of their publications, I take a look at the covers of their very first issues, both of which had something to do with Marian devotion among the Vietnamese faithful.
As indicated by its name, the primary devotional focus of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament was the Eucharist. But its founder, the French priest Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), grew up with strong Marian devotion and belonged to the Society of Mary (the Marists) until he left it to begin his own congregation. He was affected by the so-called “devotional revolution” of nineteenth-century French (and global) Catholicism. In turn, he affected contributed to this revolution by establishing this congregation for men as well as a more contemplative congregation for women. Similar to ultramontanism, this revolution later produce an enormous effect on Vietnamese Catholicism. Both European missionaries and Vietnamese clergy and religious promoted Marian devotion in many different ways. Even though Fr. Việt Châu’s congregation was not formally organized in Vietnam until the 1970s, its advocacy for Marian devotion was well aligned to devotional practices among Vietnamese Catholics at the time.
In this context, it isn’t a surprise that the cover of the first issue of DC shows the photo of a statue of Mary holding a child (below). The most interesting part, however, is that both woman and child look Vietnamese rather than European even though European representations dominated Vietnamese Catholicism during the twentieth century. In fact, the doll-like child could be a girl. The depiction is partially explained by the name of the statue: Đức Mẹ Việt Nam Tỵ Nạn, or Our Lady of Vietnam the Refugee.
A caption in the inside cover page (below) informs readers that this statue had belonged to a Vietnamese Catholic by the name of Lương Thị Hoa (whose patron saint was, indeed, Mary). She died during the Fall of Saigon, during the evacuation out of the Tân Sơn Nhất Airport. Before she died, she asked her children to take the statue to a “land of freedom that has many devotees.” (They aren’t her words, but the words in the note.) Later, her son and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Trương Ngọc Đinh, stayed at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, one of the four temporary refugee camps in continental U.S. in 1975, before settling in Minnesota. It was at Fort Chaffee that they asked the “chaplains” to take this statue for the sake of devotion among the Catholic refugees.
As for the TTĐM, the centrality of Marian devotion to the Congregation of the Mother Redeemer is apparent in its name and the name of its monthly. It would have been a surprise had the cover of the first issue in 1977 not shown some kind of representation of Mary. Yet, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover is somewhat ambiguous. The mother’s hair is straight long and black. She is wearing a Vietnamese long dress, the áo dài. The color of the dress is gold: the most prominent color of noncommunist Republican Vietnam. Is it, then, a very Vietnamized portrayal of Mary and the Christ-child? Or is it a representation of a Vietnamese mother and infant son, albeit with halos?
The halos suggest that they are not ordinary. Yet there is little about the woman’s face that resembles popular visual representations of Mary in Vietnam before 1975, especially Our Lady of Perpetual Help (a devotional object of heavy promotion by the Redemptorists) and Our Lady of Fatima (whose strongest advocates during the twentieth century included the Congregation of Mother Redeemer). Even visual representations of the Vietnamese Our Lady of Lavang, an object of intense devotion for at least some Catholics at the time, were initially based on Our Lady of Victory (later renamed Our Lady of the Rosary), who was commonly drawn to be wearing bright blue-and-red robes and a large and queenly crown while holding a princely and likewise crowned Christ-child.
Given this background, the representation on the cover of the December 1977 issue was unexpected, to say the least. Subsequent issues fell back to the more traditional representations of Mary, especially those of Our Lady of Fatima. But the cover of the first issue was distinctly different.
I’ll need to think more about this cover (and the other one). Given the context of the time, at this point I do think that it makes a good deal of sense. There was the still very painful experience of loss of South Vietnam to the communists. There was the dislocation of Vietnamese noncommunist nationalism. There was also the difficult separation of loved ones. (The cover of the first issue of DC shows two topical headlines: “the Vietnamese Catholic Church today” and “Family reunion.”) It is within this particular context that we should interpret the heavily Vietnamized representation of the statue on the DC cover and the almost completely Vietnamized representation on the TTĐM.
Marian devotion among Vietnamese was heavily nineteenth-century European in origin. In the age of nationalism, however, it was unavoidably Vietnamized among the faithful: before 1975 and, as shown by these two first-issue covers, in the years after, especially among refugees in 1977 still much anguished by the events in 1975.
Since then, there has been a transformation of visual representations of Our Lady of Lavang from a principally European figure to a distinctly Vietnamese one. This transformation didn’t occur in Vietnam, however, but in the diaspora after 1975, especially in the U.S. The new mode of representation then travelled back to Vietnam, illustrating a curious chapter in the history of Marian devotion among Vietnamese Catholics.