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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

Vietnamese celebrate faith and culture at Marian Days

Carthage, Mo.

This little city has a population of 12,500 and one Catholic church. But one weekend a year, the town in southwest Missouri surges with thousands of Vietnamese-American Catholics celebrating Vietnamese Marian Days.

“It’s virtually impossible to count because of the way it’s spread out, but the normal estimate is between 50,000 to 70,000,” said Carthage Chief of Police Dennis Veach. “That’s a lot of people in our town.”

The Marian Days celebration began in 1978 with only a few hundred people. It takes place every year on the 28-acre campus of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a Vietnamese order of priests and brothers that has a provincial house in Carthage. The order came from Vietnam in 1975 just after the end of the Vietnam War.

In front of the congregation’s main buildings stands a tall statue of the Virgin Mary, with the Christ child on her shoulder, reaching out to a man at her feet. The figure of the man represents all the boat people who were refugees from Vietnam after the war.

“Mary Mother of God is the one who rescued us,” said Benedictine Sr. Maria Nguyen, a medical social worker in Kansas City, Kan., who lived in Carthage from 1975 to 1977 after arriving from Vietnam. “She rescued the children who came to this country by boat.”

Marian Days, said Nguyen, enable the Vietnamese people to thank the Mother of God for saving their lives when they fled their country.

Vietnamese from all over the United States come to the celebration. They fill the hotels in Carthage and the surrounding towns, booking up for the next year before they leave. Tents pack every inch of available space on the Co-Redemptrix property, and some visitors camp in the yards of local residents. Some have camped on the lawns of the same Carthage families now for years; the families have watched each other grow up.

“They’re into several generations who have come now,” said Veach. “They get to be quite close.”

During the celebration, this year held Aug. 5-8, Masses and confessions take place all over campus at all hours of the day. Booths line the roads in the complex offering food, souvenirs, religious merchandise and vocational literature.

At a vocation booth for his order of the Divine Word Missionaries, Fr. Quang Dinh, from Chicago, said that Marian Days is often a great place for Vietnamese to come and visit with far-away family members. “One lives in the East, one lives in the West, [and they say], ‘I’ll meet you here.’ ”

Holly Pham, from Orange Country, Calif., came to Marian Days this year with 10 family members, including her husband, her mom and dad. She was working at a booth that sold Catholic music CDs; 20 percent of the proceeds, she said, would go back to Vietnam for the poor people and orphans there.

Near Pham’s booth, people were lining up to buy bubble tea. Avocado, passion fruit, mango or other fruit is blended with ice and drunk with a straw half an inch round, big enough to slurp up the black balls of gelatin in the bottom of the glass. In the nearby food tents, Carthage residents rubbed shoulders with Vietnamese to sample the egg rolls, spicy green bean pastries, seafood, warm coconut milk and other Asian delicacies.

“We eat like kings,” said Veach.

The celebration opens on Thursday night with a procession around the tall statue of Mary and culminates on Saturday with a procession through the residential streets of Carthage. At the Saturday event, thousands of people filter out from the lawn in front of the congregation’s main building and walk slowly past the nearby houses, singing Marian hymns in Vietnamese and interspersing the songs with the Hail Mary, also in Vietnamese. A small statue of Mary on a decorated float brings up the rear of the procession. Residents sit out on the steps of their house and watch; some offer water to those walking in the pilgrimage.

When people file back to the lawn, they stand and wait for the float with Mary on it. Everyone cheers and waves blue and white Marian flags as it arrives. When the statue is replaced on its pedestal, everyone kneels on the ground and prays for Vietnam. Then strings of firecrackers go off and hundreds of balloons are released into the sky.

Nguyen says that only 7 percent of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans are Catholic, but numbers do not matter.

“It’s amazing that wherever the Vietnamese people live, they still have a strong faith in their God,” she said.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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