Shrine To Vietnamese Lady of La Vang Is Coming To Orange County

A architect's rendering of the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine at Christ Cathedral, to be completed in June 2019. (Courtesy Torrence Architects)

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange has broken ground on a $10 million shrine at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove honoring a version of the Virgin Mary, whom many Vietnamese say appeared in a vision to their ancestors fleeing religious persecution.

The shrine marks a major milestone for Vietnamese Catholics in Orange County, home to the largest population outside of Vietnam. Many among OC's community of 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics fled the war-devastated country after the Communist takeover ended the conflict in 1975.

The new shrine acknowledges that history and the difficult journey that brought Vietnamese church members to the U.S., where they could practice their faith.

The Rev. Tuyen Van Nguyen was studying to be a Catholic priest in South Vietnam when the communists captured Saigon. His seminary was forced to close.

"I had no hope, no future," said Nguyen. "I had planned to become a priest, and my dream was cut off. There was no way to practice my religion, and I was rejected when I returned to my hometown, by the government."

The first time he tried to leave his country, Nguyen was caught and thrown into a reeducation camp for one year. He finally escaped Vietnam by boat in 1982, first to the Philippines. Then he arrived in Orange County, following in the footsteps of his brother, a South Vietnamese pilot who had taken refuge at Camp Pendleton after the war.

Throughout his trials, Nguyen took comfort in a 200-year-old story of the Virgin Mary appearing to help persecuted Catholics in central Vietnam. This vision of Mary in Vietnamese dress, holding the baby Jesus, is now known to Catholics worldwide as Our Lady of La Vang.

"I was told that the first Christians in that region were persecuted, and they ran to the jungle, the area called La Vang," Nguyen said. "They were hungry, they were sick, but our lady appeared to them and told them to make use of the leaves for medicine."

Marian apparitions, the reported supernatural appearances of the Virgin Mary, have been described by believers around the world. Mexican Catholics celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe and the French have Our Lady of Lourdes.

The apparition reported in La Vang in 1798 has become the centerpiece of Catholic faith for many Vietnamese refugees who fled the communist repression.

Nguyen is now a priest at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Westminster, one of 16 parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Orange that holds Vietnamese masses. He's part of the project to keep the La Vang legacy alive with the 16-foot marble statue and shrine.

Statues of Our Lady of La Vang for sale at Christ Cathedral, with proceeds supporting the shrine construction. (Aaron Schrank)

"All sorts of forces have invaded Vietnam over the years, and Christians are often the target of persecution, so we come to Mary for help," Nguyen said. "Not because she can make a miracle, but she can intercede. She can assist us."

BUILDING A SHRINE AND CONNECTIONS

The Christ Cathedral, the modernist glass megachurch on Garden Grove's Chapman Avenue, was known as the Crystal Cathedral until 2012, when the Catholic Church purchased the property from Robert Schuller Ministries.

The diocese is spending more than $50 million to revamp and "Catholicize" the flagship church, including replacing 12,000 glass panes. The church has raised the additional $10 million to build the La Vang shrine, mostly from Vietnamese Catholics in Orange County.

"We're not a wealthy community," said Elysabeth Nguyen, shrine project manager, who is unrelated to Rev. Nguyen. "We're an immigrant community, and most of it is first generation. So they must have believed in something so strongly that they were willing to make it work."

The Christ Cathedral, formerly known as the Crystal Cathedral, is under construction. Its new additions will include a 16-foot marble statue and shrine to 'Our Lady of La Vang.' (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Nguyen has a confession to make. Unlike most Vietnamese Catholics, she didn't grow up with the La Vang story. Nguyen didn't know who or what Our Lady of La Vang was before starting fundraising for the project.

As part of her research, Nguyen reached out to relatives in Vietnam.

"They basically said, 'Wow, you're like two generations removed from us. Why do you want to know about this now?'" Nugyen said. "I said, 'This is something I'm interested in,' and, 'What is it about her apparition that keeps all of you together?'"

Most of the donors for the project are older Vietnamese Catholics.

"The Vietnamese community has a special love for Mother Mary," said Ry Pham, a Christ Cathedral parishioner, speaking in Vietnamese. "They feel a special devotion to her, and that makes them very generous. It opens their hearts to contribute to building the shrine to Our Lady of La Vang."

The Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Every August, tens of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics visit Carthage, Missouri, for a festival called Marian Days. Church officials hope the Orange County shrine serves as a another prominent pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese faithful. But they also want to bring the La Vang story to a broader audience, including those who aren't Vietnamese or Catholic.

Lan Ngo, Loyola Marymount professor and Jesuit priest, still remembers the song he learned about Our Lady of La Vang as a boy at the end of the Vietnam War.

"It went, 'Oh, Mary, our mother, have pity on us, on our country. It was torn, destroyed by war,'" Ngo said.

The La Vang apparition has never been recognized by the Vatican, in part because the Holy See has been unable to formally re-establish ties with Vietnam. The story was also never recorded in official church writings, controlled by clergy.

"Lady of La Vang now is the big, iconic symbol of Vietnamese Catholicism, but in the written tradition, written record, there was none," Ngo said.

The enduring popularity of this symbol is a testament to the oral and devotional tradition of lay people throughout multiple wars and persecutions, Ngo said. The story has taken on new meaning in part because the village of La Vang is right at the demilitarized zone line that divided North and South Vietnam.

"It's not simply about the apparition of the lady," Ngo said. "It's the new layers of pain, of suffering, of death, of loss. Especially for the overseas Vietnamese, we can resonate with this experience."

'Our Lady of Vietnam,' another Vietnamese depiction of Mary, at the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. (Aaron Schrank)

Pope John Paul II did informally recognize Our Lady of La Vang in 1988, referencing the apparition when he canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs.

After Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995, La Vang's significance grew even more. The icon has since inspired U.S. basilicas and shrines from Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas.

The shrine's construction comes amid a push by the Trump Administration to rework a 2008 U.S.-Vietnam accord protecting Vietnam War refugees from deportation. The Department of Homeland Security said a reinterpretation of the deal could lead to the deportation of 5,000 Vietnamese immigrants who arrived between 1975 and 1995 and were convicted of crimes.

Rev. Nguyen hopes Our Lady of La Vang standing tall in Orange County can help the next generation of Vietnamese Catholics connect with the history of their faith, and refugee stories like his.

"This is the legacy we would like to give back to the local Church," Nguyen said. "For the Vietnamese Americans in the future to know what their ancestors have contributed and to make them more proud and more active and involved when we leave this world."

The Diocese of Orange expects the shrine to the Vietnamese Virgin Mary to be completed in June, along with the rest of the refurbished Crystal Cathedral.

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.


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