Among my recent interlibrary loan items is a hefty volume about the Diocese of Thái Bình in northern Vietnam.  There isn’t a scale in my house, but I’d guess that it is four or five pounds like a college chemistry or ecology textbook. Published in conjunction with the eightieth anniversary of the creation of this diocese, this “yearbook” or “commemorative publication” (kỷ yếu) includes over 700 pages of glossy and thick papers and many photos of people and churches. It offers basic information on both past and present of the dioceses as well as individual parishes and missions. The information may be brief, but they add up to some fascinating insights. 


For me, the most interesting bits of information from this doorstopper have to do with the migration to southern Vietnam during 1954-1955 and its impact on the Catholics that remained in the north. This migration remains a popular subject in recent historical scholarship, which has shed better light on (a) the background and reasons for the departure of so many Catholics and (b) some of their activities in South Vietnam after resettlement. There remains much more to discover, but on the whole we are more well informed than we were twenty years ago.

On the other hand, the Church in North Vietnam remains largely a mystery. Claire Liên Tran has of course studied the troubled collaboration between Vietnamese Catholics and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) during 1945-1954. Much of this scholarship is found in her 1997 dissertation of over a thousand pages (in French). She has also published at least one article (in Cold War History) on the DRV’s policy regarding Catholics in 1954-1956.  Much about the post-Geneva period, however, remains unknown, including the Church’s experiences during the various DRV cultural and political campaigns and, later, under American bombing.  It is an area that I wish one or more scholars, budding or mature, will take up in the coming years. 

However scholars would approach their studies of the northern Church, I think that they need to discuss the effects from the drastic reduction in membership among the northern parishes and dioceses during 1954-1975. This reduction must have affected every major aspect of the church, especially because there had been so much growth in church life and the associational culture prior to 1945.  Even during the First Indochina War, when so much of human and non-human resources went into the war effort, northern Catholics continued to run and maintain a number of associations. In his memoir, the late bishop Lê Đắc Trọng, then a young priest in Nam Định, recalls the return of several important parishioners from the Việt Minh zones.  Some parts of the town, including Catholic properties, were damaged from warfare. Along with priests and nuns, the lay returnees helped the people that never left to repair damages at some physical structures. They also reorganized devotional and Catholic Action associations.  In addition, the early 1950s saw an expansion among organizations tied to Catholic Action. Indeed, the future first Vietnamese cardinal was a parish priest in Hanoi during this time, and he was instrumental in forming the first Vietnamese chapters of the Legion of Mary.

From this background, the mass migration to the south enhanced the Catholic associational culture in South Vietnam but drastically reduced the scope and operation of this culture in the north. State policy must have played a role, but its extent and effects are not clear at this point.

Anyway, it is here that I was fascinated by some of the information found in this commemorative yearbook. The Parish of Bạch Long, for example, was created in 1905. During 1954-1955, all parishioners migrated to the south except for forty-eight members among seventeen families. This parish also included nine mission churches in its territory, and they saw similar fates. At the mission church Chỉ Kính, for example, “most of the faithful left for the South, leaving only three families behind.” At the mission church An Định, only one family did not depart for the south. So on and so forth. It wasn’t possible to have an associational culture without membership, and the loss of a critical mass meant a near-total demise of this culture. The migration would have decimated the membership at parishes and missions like them and drastically altered the character of church life even before any government policy could take place. 

The yearbook doesn’t offer information about priests and nuns, who were, of course, crucial to the staffing of associational life. From another source, though, I learned that seventy-nine left for the south along with approximately 80,000 of the laity. This number reflects a massive loss for the Diocese of Thái Bình, for in 1963 there were only thirteen priests, including four recently ordained ones, to serve an approximate Catholic population of over 80,000 people. Which is another way of saying that about half of the laity went south but about 85% of the clergy went with them. In any event, the remaining priests had to minister to fourteen parishes and some 536 churches. Of course, many of these churches were not used at all, and the yearbook notes that at least one church was in such disarray for human use that the government took over and used it to store foodstuff instead.  I’d guess that the faithful at most mission churches in this diocese had to travel to a parish for Sunday masses, and it is possible that many did not have mass during some Sundays of any given year.

In other words, the effects of the migration upon the lives of northern Catholics were both profound and multiple. It is true that the last two or three decades have witnessed a return to the associational culture in these parishes and missions.  Many parish or mission descriptions note a number of active devotional or other organizations such as Dominican Youth (Huynh Đoàn Đa Minh), Eucharistic Youth (Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể), the Sodality of the Rosary (Hội Mân Côi), the Sodality of Children of Our Lady (Hội Con Đức Mẹ), and the Divine Mercy Sodality (Hội Lòng Thương Xót Chúa). From this distance, they appear to be a reconstitution of mostly old forms of devotion that once worked as basis for a vibrant parish and faith life.

But I am merely guessing, and I’d welcome help from anthropologists and scholars in religious studies for a clearer understanding of the present situation. Besides, my foremost concern is about the past rather than the present. It is to historians of Vietnam that I make an appeal to study the daily lives of northern Vietnamese during 1954-1975, including the experiences of a diminished number of Catholics.