On Sunday mornings it sometimes can be hard to find a seat for Mass at Luat Tran’s church—and we’re not talking about St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
“Typically we have a Saturday evening Mass. On Sundays we have three more Masses and they are all full,” explains Luat, a member of the enormous Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington, Texas.
The 29,00-square foot church, located in the Diocese of Fort Worth, is home to more than 1,700 Vietnamese American families who come from a strong tradition of faith. Like Luat, many parishioners were either refugees or the sons and daughters of refugees who fled Communist persecution in Vietnam, after the fall of Saigon.
“We came from Vietnam in 1975 during the first wave of refugees. We left Vietnam in a small boat. The first wave was when Saigon collapsed,” recalls Luat, who was 15 years old at the time. He says a U.S. merchant ship rescued him and his family and brought all 11 of them to Guam.
“We lived in several places before we settled in Texas. We were one of the lucky families to get out. We know that Catholicism and Communism are incompatible.”
Given all Luat lived through and saw as child, freedom of religion is not something he takes for granted.
“Our church is named after our ancestors. They died for their religion, so our belief is strong,” continues Luat, now 55 years old.
Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Arlington is named for the 117 martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Their feast day is November 24. They represent the hundreds of thousands of Catholics the Vatican estimates were brutally murdered for their faith over the centuries in Vietnam.
What started as a small community of Vietnamese refugees continued to grow over the years. In 1975 Luat’s family and about a dozen others attended St. Matthew Catholic Church in Arlington.
“By the time we reached 450 families, the diocese allowed us to get our own church,” he says.
Their first church, consecrated in 2000, was an old Food Lion grocery store converted into a worship space. But the community of Catholics kept growing.
“After 13 years, we grew to 1,200 families,” says Luat. That’s when the families came together to build a new church.
“The parishioners contributed financially to build the church, which cost 7 million dollars.”
Each family generously donated about $3,000. Luat, who is the president of the pastoral council, says the church now has more than 6,000 members.
“We are probably the biggest parish in the United Sates,” says Luat.
Parishioners spared no expense in designing the church with their Vietnamese roots in mind. There is a 75-foot bell tower, and the altar, statues, walls, and floors are made from 750,000 pounds of granite and marble, brought in from Vietnam. The exterior of the church is equally impressive, with a six-foot statue of the Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus.
“Twice a year, in May and October, we have processions to glorify Mary,” says Luat, who has been married for 27 years. He and his wife Thu have four grown children. Luat, who didn’t know a word of English when he came to the U.S., started high school as a sophomore. He had to drop out his senior year in order to work full-time, but nevertheless he still managed to get his general equivalency diploma (GED). Luat went on to Witchita State University in Kansas, graduating with a degree in engineering.
“In this country, you have everything. Why abandon what you believe? Why abandon God?” Luat says. “We not only keep our faith, but as Catholics we want to be role models.”
Witness of the martyrs
Luat is not alone in that mission of evangelization, which Pope Francis is calling all Catholics to take to heart. Thirty-seven year old Nathan Pham also strives to be a role model. The husband and father of three young children came over from Vietnam when he was just two years old.
“My wife and I were born in Vietnam. After the war, the U.S. gave asylum to refugees. We happened to be among them,” explains Nathan, one of nine children.
“We have a Vietnamese history. We have 117 martyrs. For us it’s a big deal,” says Nathan. “They are our role models. We honor them on a weekly basis.”
Nathan, who graduated form the University of Texas in Arlington, is also an engineer. He says he’s proud of the parish his family helped to build and equally proud of the strong youth ministry it provides.
“Growing up in our parish, we have a Eucharistic youth group and Bible studies. The whole purpose is prayer. I grew up in this parish.”
Vietnamese Martyrs Church has more than 1,000 children in the faith formation program. All the services are in Vietnamese, except for the youth Mass each Sunday, which is offered in both English and Vietnamese.
Nathan says he and his wife are committed to keeping their children—ages four, six, and nine—close to Christ.
“I’ve been through hard times. I truly believe Christ exists. The Catholic faith is a set of guidelines for you to live your life on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s my responsibility—along with my wife—to push our kids in the same direction my parents pushed me. If I don’t go to Sunday Mass, I feel like I am missing something.”
Strong parish life
Father Vinh Van Vu, CMC, was named the pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish last spring.
“I like the parish a lot. This is a crowded parish, full of people with strong faith,” says Father Vu. “Most of the adults are devoted to their beliefs and regularly participate in religious activities such as Mass, Benediction, prayer, procession, and charity work. They are also very generous in giving time and money to build a large, strong parish.”
The efforts of families in the parish to spread Christ’s good news have inspired others across the Diocese of Fort Worth.
“They are great witnesses to us,” says Marlon De La Torre, the director of catechesis and evangelization for the diocese.
“They are faithful in their teaching. They are very effective evangelists. To them family is everything. They don’t shy away from the truth. They go from womb to tomb in every aspect of family in religious education,” he says.
While it’s no secret that church attendance among Catholics nationally is low, parishioners at Vietnamese Martyrs are inviting people back by their loving and unapologetic witness for Christ.
“Whatever you achieve or have, that’s a gift from God. If you believe in him, he will bless you and your family,” says Luat. “God is with you in everything you do.”