I wrote the last post about the beginning of Cursillo to South Vietnam, and this one is about the beginning of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fátima. Both occurred during the 1960s around the Americanization of the Vietnam War. Catholics in the Philippines were instrumental to the establishment of Cursillo in South Vietnam. When it comes to the Blue Army, however, it was the initiative of a Vietnamese then studying in the U.S., followed by eager assistance from the Americans, Australians, etc. and eager participation among Vietnamese Catholics.
Which should not surprise because the Blue Army began on American soil: in northern New Jersey, to be exact. Its first leaders were the priest Harold Colgan and the layman John Haffert. The story is that Fr. Colgan contracted a serious heart disease in 1946. In a classically Catholic fashion, he prayed for healing from Mary and vowed that he would devote the rest of his life to promote her devotion. In the same year and as the Cold War was heating up, Haffert made a pilgrimage to Fatima and met with the local bishop and Sr. Lucia, the oldest and only survivor of the three children. Having lived in several convents since the early 1920s, mostly in Spain, Lucia had recently returned to Portugal for good and lived the rest of her life as a Carmelite nun. Five years earlier, she had obeyed this bishop’s request to write about the apparitions and the “secrets” learned from Mary. The next year (1942), the Church publicized the first two secrets, which have to do with a vision of hell, the end of World War I, and a prediction of another war should Soviet Russia not convert.
In any event, the pilgrimage convinced Haffert, a former Carmelite seminarian, to participate actively in the fight against the Soviet-led atheistic and global enemy. The fact that Pope Pius XII consecrated Our Lady of Fatima with the title Queen of the World during the same year could not but help his cause. In response, Haffert wrote a pledge that emphasizes “reparation” by threefold action: to pray the rosary daily, to offer up sacrifices through one’s duty, and, as a tribute to the Carmelite heritage, to wear a scapular of St. Carmel.
In the meantime, Fr. Colgan made a recovery and kept his word to promote Marian devotion. Soon, he learned about Haffert’s story, adopted the layman’s pledge, and asked believers to wear a small blue ribbon: that is, the color blue as opposed to red communism. The next year, the two Americans asked and received papal blessing to found the Blue Army. The organization quickly picked up tens of thousands of members, then spread abroad to count millions in membership by the 1950s.
The year 1946, then, was momentous in the history of Marian devotion and American anticommunism. At the same time, Vietnam was undergoing its own momentous and very bloody period that began with the August Revolution in the fall of 1945 and continued into the first phase of the First Indochina War. Devotion to Our Lady of Fatima began to spread during this period. At least some of the credit for the initial spreading should go to two Vietnamese priests who published about Fatima in 1945. One was Nguyễn Tri Ân (1913-1965), about whom little is known. He was one of five contemporary Dominicans that hailed from Kẻ Sặt, a small town in the northern Hải Dương Province, whose parish of the same name began in the seventeenth century. In Nam Định, Fr. Ân published Sự Lạ Fatima [The Fatima Apparitions], translation of (likely) the recently published memoir of Sr. Lucia. The second priest, Nguyễn Minh Đăng, published in nearby Thái Bình (and under the pen name Thạch Minh) Mệnh Lệnh Đức Mẹ Mân Côi Fatima [The Message of Our Lady of Fatima]. Another priest, a European missionary Dominican, Fr. Jeffro Đỗ Minh Thể, was active in promoting devotion to the Reparation of the Immaculate Heart that was linked also to Our Lady of Fatima. National division temporarily put a pause to this movement, whose leadership was assumed by the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix from the late 1950s to the fall of Saigon.
Although some Vietnamese Catholics had read or heard about the Blue Army, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s, that the organization reached Vietnam. From a South Vietnamese publication, I learned that on February 14, 1964, a military officer from the Republic of Vietnam, then studying at Fort Bragg in northern California, visited the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC to learn more about Marian devotion in the U.S. There, he met a Redemptorist priest who “introduced” him to the Blue Army. Back to California, the Vietnamese talked to an American officer, also a Catholic, who in turn wrote to Colgan, now a monsignor. Colgan promptly wrote the Vietnamese. He included some materials about the Blue Army and expressed the wish that the organization spread to South Vietnam. The publication does not give the name or rank of the Vietnamese. It indicates, however, that the American officer was a major and his last name was “Shweitzer”: clearly a misspelling of Schweitzer.
In May, the Vietnamese officer sent the Archbishop of Saigon a petition to begin Blue Army in the archdiocese. In the past, it normally took a short time before a bishop approved an organization or sodality of this type. In this case, however, several reasons, including the archbishop’s attendance at the Second Vatican Council, led to more petitions and visits before the archbishop granted his approval on September 19. The next month, on October 11, the archdiocesan cathedral hosted an opening mass for over 1000 Vietnamese to mark their membership in the Blue Army.
In the meantime, Colgan called upon other national members to help the Vietnamese grow. It was a Belgian member that suggested taking one of the four traveling statues of Our Lady of Fatima to South Vietnam. Similar to the papal nuncio to South Vietnam, Haffert very much supported this idea. He worked with the Blue Army in Australia, which became the primary foreign organizer of the trip. On October 10, 1965, or one year since the founding of the Blue Army in Vietnam, one of the statues arrived to Saigon from Australia.
The statue was supposed to travel for three months, but the Vietnamese Catholics wanted it to stay in their country until the end of the war. Which was not possible, but the statue did remain in South Vietnam for about two years. Vietnamese desire also led the Blue Army to the idea of creating statues of the “national pilgrim Virgin.” When Paul VI became the first pope to visit Fatima in 1967 for the fiftieth anniversary of the first apparitions, he blessed twenty-five such statues. At the event, as Haffert described some fifteen years later, was “a large Blue Army delegation [that] came from Vietnam, going days without sleep.” They wanted to be present at the blessing and “carry that first National Pilgrim Virgin statue back with them at once to their suffering country.” I hope to come across more materials about their activities in and out of South Vietnam.