By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 20, 2008
It was a cultural celebration, full of the colors, sights and sounds of Vietnam.
Thousands of parishioners gathered in Our Lady of Vietnam’s large gymnasium on the chilly fall morning of Oct. 26 as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a milestone—the 10th anniversary of the beloved parish.
In the parish courtyard, young girls in traditional Vietnamese dresses performed a flower dance in front of the 13-foot statue of Our Lady of La Vang, the church’s patroness. As the congregation sang and prayed in Vietnamese, the girls placed their flowers at the feet of the statue. To conclude the outdoor ceremony, the archbishop released a large bouquet of balloons to the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd, who shaded their eyes as they watched them grow smaller in the cloudless sky.
Concelebrants with Archbishop Gregory at the Mass that followed included Msgr. Francis Pham Van Phuong, the pastor, and Father Richard Morrow, who fostered the growth of the Vietnamese community as a mission 30 years ago.
Msgr. Phuong began by thanking the archbishop for his support and speaking briefly of the parish’s history.
From 1976 to 1989 members of the Vietnamese community worshipped at St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, where Father Morrow was pastor, and Msgr. Phuong served as the administrator of the Vietnamese apostolate. Our Lady of Vietnam Mission church in Forest Park was purchased by the Vietnamese Catholic community, with the assistance of the archdiocese in March 1989, and about nine years later in 1997 the new Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale was dedicated. Archbishop John F. Donoghue elevated Our Lady of Vietnam to a parish in October 1998.
“We are very grateful you are here today, Archbishop Gregory,” Msgr. Phuong said. “We thank God for the many years we had as a Vietnamese Catholic community in Hapeville and as a mission in Forest Park. We are grateful to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and as a Vietnamese community of clergy and laity, we welcome you.”
Msgr. Phuong then turned his words to their “benefactor,” Father Morrow.
“You have always inspired us with your words of kindness and wisdom,” Msgr. Phuong said. “We are grateful to you.”
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory expressed his great joy in celebrating the parish’s anniversary.
“I rejoice with the Vietnamese community as you celebrate this special time of year,” he said.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Hung Nguyen, president of the parish council, thanked the archbishop and concelebrating priests, each of whom were presented with a large bouquet of flowers. Father Morrow, too, spoke to the congregation and offered his congratulations.
“I am very much impressed with the faith I have seen here this morning—from the youngest member to the oldest,” he said. “You can tell that God is here. Thank you for your good example.”
Nguyen has been a member of the community for 30 years. He said it was important for those coming to this country from Vietnam to be able to keep their traditions alive.
“At the beginning, we had no community, and we were lucky to have Father Morrow,” he said, adding that Father Morrow asked Msgr. Phuong to come to Atlanta to lead the community. “Msgr. Phuong witnessed a lot. At the beginning, he would take people to look for jobs and take pregnant women to the hospital when they were in labor because he could speak English.”
Now the community has grown to more than 700 families. Nguyen said it was important for the young children, growing up in the United States, to learn Vietnamese traditions.
“The Vietnamese children, though they are American, always eventually look to the Vietnamese community to learn of their own traditions. They want to find their roots,” he said.
John Huynh, 24, a teacher at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, is one young member of the parish who embraces his Vietnamese heritage.
“When our family moved here to Georgia, one of the first things my parents looked for was a Vietnamese community,” he said. “Having a Vietnamese church as part of our everyday lives was a priority to my parents, which therefore made it a priority in my life.”
Huynh laughed as he remembered Msgr. Phuong telling him that he would not be allowed to eat the delicious Vietnamese egg rolls prepared by the women in the parish if he did not learn the Vietnamese Catholic traditions. He said while growing up he sometimes longed to be more like his American friends, who brought sandwiches for lunch, while he brought the three course meals prepared by his mother that required chopsticks and several bowls.
“To learn about the traditions became very important to me as I was growing up,” he said. “How many people are raised knowing two languages, two cultures and two traditions? As I was growing up, I really never understood why my parents were pushing the tradition so hard, but as I was entering high school, I soon realized that it was not them forcing the tradition, but rather they were helping me understand the potential of who I really am.”
At the anniversary Mass, Huynh assisted Archbishop Gregory.
“It was a blessing and extremely honorable,” he said. “I felt blessed to partake of this great privilege to see the vibrant community during the ceremony.”
Van Dang, a member of the women’s Marian group, also felt honored to be there.
“We thank God for everything we have. Everything we have is a miracle,” she said. “Today is a very special day for us and our wonderful community.”