GREER—More than 300 adults and children filled Our Lady of La Vang Church Nov. 19 to offer praise and prayer for the 117 Catholic Vietnamese martyrs who faced persecution and death some 200 years ago.
“Your presence here makes a difference,” Franciscan Father David Phan, pastor of Our Lady of La Vang, told the crowd during the three-hour celebration that included a procession and Mass, followed by a luncheon and social.
Families from Our Lady of La Vang walked across the church grounds with visitors from other deaneries. Many participants wore festive, traditional dress. A group of women from the Vietnamese Ministry at St. Anne Church in Rock Hill led the procession, carrying a litter topped with a monstrance housing relics of the 117 martyrs.
This celebration marked the second year the event has been held at Our Lady of La Vang. Previously, Vietnamese-American Catholics in the diocese gathered at St. Anne, and prior to that at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville. St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia also has hosted the celebration.
The men and women honored at the feast make up what is known as the Martyrs of Tonkin or Annam, and Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions. They were canonized in 1988 by St. John Paul II and are a small sample of the thousands of Catholics who faced persecution and death in Vietnam during the 1800s.
At that time, ruling dynasties tried to rid the country of Catholics. By some estimates, 300,000 may have been killed by the government.
The persecution was halted when France colonized Vietnam in the late 1800s.
Father Phan said the annual feast helps people live out their faith in a challenging society, even when tested.
Joined by concelebrants Father Long Tuan Nguyen and Franciscan Father Tuan Anh Tran, Father Phan said the persecution and suffering that Vietnamese Catholics endured 200 years ago “helps us to live our faith today.”
Last year’s celebration at Our Lady of La Vang coincided with the dedication of the new church, which had been named a quasi-parish by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone in 2015 in response to the growth of the Vietnamese Catholic community in the Greenville/Spartanburg area.
Father Phan said while Our Lady of La Vang doesn’t yet have formal registration, he estimates around 175 families regularly attend Mass there, up from an estimated 125 families two years ago.
Recent estimates set the total number of Vietnamese Catholics in South Carolina at around 2,000, according to Michael Tran, assistant director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries. That’s an increase of around 500 Vietnamese Catholics over the past four years.
The growing community also gathers each spring for the Feast of Our Lady of La Vang, a Marian vision that appeared in 1798 to Catholics in Vietnam who had witnessed the same persecution suffered by the martyrs.
Top photo: Children check out a pair of dragon costumes worn and paraded by young men outside Our Lady of La Vang Church. The dancing dragons are part of the annual Feast of 117 Vietnamese Martyrs.