Members of the Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam entertaining Vietnamese children. ~ pc

Spring 2018 saw a good deal of reading and writing. In contrast, I spent this past semester almost exclusively on teaching, service to the university, and service to the profession. It is very nice to return to research a few days ago.

The first step was taking a closer look at a stack of South Vietnamese publications that sat on my desk since arrival via Interlibrary Loan two months ago.  My motive is to gain a better understanding of the Catholic associational culture in the Republic of Vietnam. In particular, I’ve been curious about the origin of the Cursillo movement. Unlike Marian sodalities and various Catholic Action organizations that began their footing in Vietnam during the 1950s or earlier, Cursillo did not “arrive” to the country until the 1960s. I knew little else, and there is still a lot that I don’t know. But I am in a better position after looking at one of these publications. 

Continuing with the theme of Vietnamese engagement with global Catholicism, I found that the Vietnam War played a major role in the introduction of Cursillo to Vietnamese Catholics through the presence of Filipinos. Ironically, even though the Philippines had been a Spanish colony, it wasn’t Spaniards but American cursillistas who introduced the movement to Filipinos in 1963. Around the same time, and as another illustration of interactions among global forces, Spanish migrants to Australia introduced the movement to Australian Catholics.

In the Vietnamese case, the Americanization of the war in 1965 brought not only Americans but also contingents from a number of other countries to South Vietnam. Some, such as South Koreans and Australians, came as combat troops. Others, including Filipinos, came as civil engineers to work on a host of construction. In the words of Eugene Sañosa, a former Filipino engineer who worked in South Vietnam for eight years:

In March 1965, I headed for South Vietnam and temporarily had to leave my family in Manila. As a recruit of the Pacific Architects & Engineers, Inc., I landed at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, South Vietnam with other Filipino engineers… In South Vietnam, our work mostly consisted of engineering design, construction and repair work of all US Army facilities. We constructed all kinds of infrastructures from building roads, bridges, barracks, mess halls to providing water supplies, and electrical facilities for the US Army fighting there. My assignment from the Army Corps of Engineers was to survey the locations, plan and stage all the materials needed for construction, and then evaluate the crew and come up with a completion date for the project.  The construction crews mostly comprised of Vietnamese locals. [My wife] Josie and the kids visited me at Camp Cu Chi, an army camp occupied by the 25th Army Division. They were also able to explore Saigon.

There is a photo of this engineer at a Cursillo retreat in the Philippines (below), but it was in 1967. So it isn’t clear whether he played a role in spreading Cursillo to the Vietnamese locals, or whether he was already a cursillista in 1965. 


In any event, the initial contacts led to the founding of the movement in South Vietnam, credited to the cooperation of two Vietnamese laymen, Nguyễn Văn Thơ and Phan Huy Đức; and a foreign priest, a major general, and a captain whose first names and nationalities are not given. 

It led to the first Cursillo retreat in Vietnam: a four-day event during the last week of January 1967. Held at the Bethania retreat center in Saigon, its leaders included Alejandro Olalia, bishop of the Diocese of Lipa in the Philippines; Fr. Cirilo Almario, a thirty-something Cursillo chaplain who eventually became the bishop of the Diocese of Malolos (also in the Philippines); and layman Mervyn Samson (American? Australian? European?) 

Because the talks were given in English, it is not a surprise that the forty-two Vietnamese attendants were educated at the college level or beyond. They included six members of men’s religious orders, two diocesan priests, and thirty-four lay Catholics in government, the military, the professiorate, banking, etc. (It is not clear if there were any women among the laity.)  Underscoring the import of the event, no fewer than three Vietnamese bishops made visits to the retreat.  Following the event, the Archbishop of Saigon gave permission for a second retreat to be held a month later. Because the Filipinos couldn’t get to South Vietnam on time, it was eventually moved to the following month. English continued to be the language of that retreat, but I don’t think it took too long before Vietnamese became the language of choice to match the growing interest. 

This slice of history suggests that Catholics from the Philippines contributed crucially to the formation of Cursillo in South Vietnam. In scholarship, there has been next to nothing about the Filipino connection to the culture of South Vietnam. (Even on the subject of popular music, I haven’t seen much more than passing references to Filipino musicians and traveling bands.) From a short timeline of Cursillo in Asia-Pacific, it appears that Filipino cursillistas played an important role in the history of the movement in South Korea and Taiwan, among other countries. Although Cursillo began in western Europe, it seems to me that the Filipino connection was most responsible for the spread of this movement in East and Southeast Asia.