The last weekend in January was one of particular celebration for the Vietnamese Catholic community in Lancaster.
January closed on the eve of the culturally significant celebration of Tet – the Vietnamese New Year. It’s a period that signifies family, love and hope, optimism for the future and a celebration of what has been accomplished in the past year.
For many Vietnamese Catholics in Lancaster, no doubt the Tet celebration took on added significance this year, as they now have an official place to call home.
On January 29, St. Anne Parish in Lancaster celebrated the decree of its name being changed to St. Anne and Our Lady of La Vang Parish. The modification recognizes the culture, contributions and faith of the Vietnamese community’s strong presence there. Vietnamese Catholics have been gathering for Mass since 1975, and the community officially formed there seven years ago.
Standing in front of a jubilant congregation gathered for the momentous occasion during holy Mass, Bishop Ronald Gainer read the official decree “On the Renaming/Modification of St. Anne Parish, Lancaster, to St. Anne and Our Lady of La Vang Parish.”
The decree was officially given at the Curia of the Diocese of Harrisburg and signed on January 22, 2022.
“It is a great joy to gather here with you this evening as we celebrate this holy Mass, but also to be able to read to you the decree by which the name of your parish has been changed,” the bishop told the congregation. “I know it brings joy to many and, I hope, to all who are here as we begin a new history in the parish of St. Anne’s by this decree.”
Faith and Unity
The decree marked an occasion of faith, unity and joy for the parish, as it arose mutually from the parish’s Anglo and Vietnamese communities.
Father Tri Luong, pastor, told The Catholic Witness the desire to bring the two communities together under one modified parish name began just a few weeks after he was named pastor of St. Anne’s and of the Vietnamese community in the summer of 2015, he said.
“Since the Vietnamese people gather here for Masses, the English-speaking people and Vietnamese-speaking people have been joined together and have gotten to know each other. Slowly and naturally, the St. Anne Parish Council started to talk about the future and how the Vietnamese people would be involved and how they could further join,” he said.
According to the decree, the parish council’s particular review of statistics led to discussion of the long-term status of the Vietnamese community, which had been gathering for Mass in their native language at St. Anne’s – as well as at Sacred Heart and St. Anthony of Padua parishes – since 1975.
Following a series of meetings and discussions between the parish council last spring, the Vietnamese council and the finance council, as well as a time of gathering feedback from parishioners, the communities found overwhelming support of the idea to bring the two groups together in an official manner. Father Luong also received permission from Bishop Gainer to move forward.
Further in-depth discussion of community, vision, opportunities and challenges followed, along with town hall meetings for parishioner feedback, “which was lively and positive,” the decree states.
“By a show of hands, the majority was overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward to become one in spirit and in efforts,” the decree says of the town halls on July 17 and 18.
On August 5, 2021, during a parish council meeting, the decision was made to modify the name of St. Anne Parish to invoke the patronage of Our Lady of La Vang, whose feast day is August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption.
The decree has no impact on the name of the church itself. The worship site remains under the patronage of St. Anne.
Our Lady of La Vang
Our Lady of La Vang first appeared to a small group of Catholics seeking refuge in the jungle of La Vang in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam in 1798. The Marian apparition occurred during the time when Vietnamese Catholics were suffering persecution for their faith, and the thick forest provided them much cover.
Our Lady appeared to them in the branches of a tree, wearing traditional Vietnamese dress and carrying the infant Jesus in her arms. She comforted the group, and instructed them to boil leaves to produce medicine for their chronic illnesses from contaminated waters. She told them, “From this day on, prayers said on this spot will be heard, and answered.”
Not long after the apparition, the group received word that the persecutions had ended. They returned to their homes, and soon word of the apparition began to spread. Many people began to pray at this site and, in 1820, a chapel was built.
La Vang became the National Marian Center of Vietnam on April 13, 1961. Pope John XXIII elevated the Church of Our Lady of La Vang to the rank of a minor basilica in 1961.
One in Christ
“We are all one in Christ; all part of the same Eucharistic Body, the Universal Church,” the parish posted to its Facebook page on January 31, in celebration of the name change. “The union was not mandated; to the contrary, it arose out of virtue and love. Like a marriage, the two became one and took on each other’s name.”
It was a fitting post on the eve of the Vietnamese New Year, as the parish celebrated the beginning of its next chapter, now under the patronage of St. Anne and her daughter, Our Lady.
“When you give, you receive. Seven years ago, the Vietnamese were welcomed into St. Anne Parish. We really didn’t understand what a ‘community or apostolate’ was, but it didn’t matter. Our church was their church,” said parishioner Chris Whalen. “They came with a statue of Our Lady of La Vang and it was prominently placed in the church. Vietnamese Mass times were established and facility needs for choir practice, youth group, and other spiritual events were accommodated. Over the years, friendships blossomed socially and spiritually.”
“When you give, you receive,” she said, pointing to myriad ways in which the two communities have served, celebrated and worshipped together, including gatherings on the Feast of St. Anne and the Lunar New Year, bilingual liturgies, and projects for the beautification of the parish and church.
“The flow of parish life is so mixed between the two groups that most parishioners thought the Vietnamese were parishioners,” Whalen said. “In fact, even members of the parish council didn’t realize the Vietnamese weren’t parishioners or that it was possible that they could be moved at some point. With this knowledge, a need for justice for them became a priority. Our hearts are overflowing with joy and goodness knowing we were able to give them this one gift that we so often take for granted: parish.”
“We are two unique groups now joining together as one,” Father Luong said. “We are not a rich parish, and by the number of the parishioners we have, we are very small. The reason to bring the communities as one is because we worship together, and we celebrate the Eucharist together. That is something we have in common from the start.”
“The name change gives the Vietnamese people a place to call home. They are so happy for this,” he said.
There are 80 Vietnamese families registered at St. Anne and Our Lady of La Vang Parish. Father Luong is hopeful the new name will attract more Vietnamese Catholics to officially join the parish to grow in faith.
“I hope many more begin to worship here, at a place they can call home,” he said.
“We have great joy for the future, celebrating our new name and a new year. It’s a great time for celebrating new beginnings,” he said.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness