By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 26, 2019
NORCROSS—Standing in the new soaring church, Father Francis Tuan Tran recalled his escape from Vietnam in 1987, fleeing first by land to Cambodia and then by boat to Thailand.
He was 29 years old, his seminary had been repressed by the communist government, and minders watched him.
“It forced me to flee their capture otherwise I would have been put in prison,” he said.
The priest is now is the spiritual leader of the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs faith community of some 1,400 families, celebrating a new $14 million church building in Norcross.
“God has his own way to lead us,” said the bespectacled priest.
‘To live in the strength of unshakable faith’
On Nov. 28, an estimated 4,000 people witnessed the dedication of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, a towering building with roofs of sweeping overhanging eaves. It seats about 1,500, as believers filled every seat on the former car dealership campus from the old church building to the social hall.
Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, diocesan administrator, led the Thanksgiving Day Mass and dedication, along with some 30 other priests, including Vietnamese clergymen from around the country.
Bishop Konzen said the Archdiocese of Atlanta is proud of this community, with its faithfulness and diversity it brings to the church.
This parish “begins a new chapter in its life, in this new and sacred home,” he said.
Paying special honor to the parish’s namesake, Bishop Konzen said the martyrs “forever occupy a place in our hearts, and from the spirit of their courage, and from the blood they shed for the sake of Christ, we are made strong in our own faith, in our love for God and in all the gifts he gives us—life, family, religion and country.”
The parish name recalls the martyrdom of 117 Vietnamese Catholic and European missionaries killed for their faith in Vietnam during the 18th- and 19th-century persecutions. St. John Paul II canonized the group in 1988.
“Christ has promised us that if we stand with him, if we die with him, then we too will live with him in a glorious life that will not end. The Holy Martyrs did this,” said Bishop Konzen. “Their spirit is here today urging us to make the same commitment, not just today, but every day that we live, to live in the strength of unshakable faith.”
Vietnamese values add to America
There are some 51,000 Vietnamese living around metro Atlanta, according to government numbers. In Vietnam, less than 10 percent of the population is Catholic. Holy Vietnamese Martyrs is one of two Vietnamese language parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese. The other is Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale.
The community, which first made its home at Atlanta’s Holy Cross Church, moved to a former car dealership in Norcross in 2006. A large garage where mechanics once repaired cars became the sanctuary. Six Masses are celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays. The parish has 1,600 registered families.
A controversial plan to construct a trash transfer station nearby in 2009 energized the community to fight back. The proposal died. The parish later bought the land. It now is a recreation area for the parish and a place for retreats.
Holding onto the Vietnamese culture is an important balancing act, reflected in the building construction. Leaders revere the first generation who escaped the mother country after the Vietnam War to the United States but also value the generations who grew up here and Vietnamese is their second language.
There are more than 1,000 young people involved in the religious education program.
Building honors generations
The community worked to raise millions for this project with its fall cultural festival that attracts thousands of people, and with food sales and donations.
“It’s a passion for us. It’s been seven years for us,” said “CC” Nguyen, one of the leaders in building the church.
Nguyen, 55, encouraged erecting two large crosses on the church roof. He remembered how he and his father passed a church with large crosses as they drove from their North Carolina home to Virginia. They made the trip for the small Vietnamese community to pick up a Vietnamese priest to celebrate Mass in North Carolina.
“That kind of burned in my mind 40 years ago,” he recalled.
Planning for the church meant including features unique to the Vietnamese and Asian culture.
Nguyen said the community was asked often for its opinion and consistently adults and young people asked for a church where everyone would be comfortable.
“We are a Vietnamese American community. We are going to build an American church with Vietnamese flair,” he said, standing below the 55-foot high roof.
The building’s swooping roofs point the viewers’ eyes to heaven. With a nod toward Asian philosophy, the planners featured symmetry in the construction: three doors, three tiers of the building and three exterior colors. The three facets represent earth, humankind and the divine.
Father Tran said his goal for the builders was a church with “simplicity, but elegant.”
“This is the place for God and man to pray,” he said. “This is a place for the family to gather together.”
Marble circles representing the seven sacraments, leading from the baptismal pool to the altar, are inlaid with imported Vietnamese stone, linking the community with their homeland.
Priests celebrating Mass will stand at an extra-long altar, measuring 117 inches in length and 117 centimeters wide, or about 46 inches. (A typical altar is between 90 and 98 inches.) The dimensions recall the 117 canonized martyrs.
A rectangular box design on the floor and around the church is just not for decoration. The dark red design symbolizes the edge of the bamboo mats where martyrs lost their lives. Their body would be wrapped in the mat for disposal. The lives of those faithful are recalled with this motif. A palm branch represents Vietnam in another nod to the martyrs.
And finally, over the sanctuary is a cupola with surrounding glass. For Father Tran, the openness and light remind him of a “heaven and earth channel” where God’s blessings come down on the people, as the people’s prayers rise.
The parish also wanted their new spiritual home to link the faith with their American-born children. Builders constructed the church in a Gothic style, with wooden pews and pointed arches.
But even that has significance. Nguyen said the Gothic architecture reminds people of French missionaries who bought the faith to Vietnam.
Dennis Kelly, the senior project manager for Catholic Construction, shepherded this project along with the Vietnamese community.
“I can tell you from a personal standpoint that this is one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever been associated with. I have worked for the archdiocese for over 20 years in this capacity and completed many, many projects. But this one is special. These people are special. Their story is unique and they are a joy to work with,” said Kelly. I feel very blessed to have been given the opportunity to work and grow with them over the past 12 years.”
The building architect is the Sizemore Group. Van Winkle Construction built it.
In his homily, Bishop Konzen celebrated the accomplishments of those first refugees “who with tremendous courage” faced the decision to flee before settling here. Those first immigrants “contributed so much to our society, to our prosperity, and, especially, to our Catholic faith here in the United States.”
The parish leader celebrated how providence’s hand guided the community.
“God led us all the way to this,” said Nguyen.