You Have to See This Store to Believe it

I recently stumbled on the biggest religious goods shop I’ve ever seen — in Saigon, Vietnam.

(photo: Photos by Angelo Stagnaro)

This one, you’re not going to believe.

I was planning a visa run to re-enter Burma to continue my work there as a lay missionary and I had heard tell of a wondrous Catholic religious arts store run by the Redemptorists in Saigon, Vietnam―merely three countries over.

The parish at which I volunteered needed a new sanctuary light (one of the altar boys had a little “mishap” but promises to never do it again)―and a few other Catholic knick-knacks and other liturgical bric-a-brac so I decide to head there.

And, for those who’ve had the great fortune to have eaten a bánh mì thịt―a Vietnamese roasted pork sandwich―from a street vendor, you know I had ulterior motives for going to Saigon.

As 18% of Vietnam is Catholic, practically everyone in Saigon has been to this store and they were all eager to help me.

The bright, shiny, air-conditioned, glass-enclosed building confused me at first. I simply presumed the “Blessed Virgin Mary Store” was a bit… demurer… in keeping with the name.

You walk in and the miles and miles of religious art simply overwhelms you and all you can think is, “Is this really what Our Lord had in mind?”

And then you see the store is having a sale on crucifixes with the little St. Benedict medal behind the corpus and think, “Oh! I’ve got to get one of those!” And then, you peruse the collection of saint statues that simply goes on and on forever and you finally land upon one that would be perfect for the new family prayer corner you’ve just decided to make and all of a sudden, your wallet is lighter and your conscious clearer.

There are no exact synonyms of the word “big” to adequately describe the Blessed Virgin Mary Store, but the word colossal immediately comes to mind — as does humongous, behemothic, leviathan, gargantuan and Brobdingnagian.

You walk past the impressive collection of Italian, American and Vietnamese-made chalices and something akin to shock and bewilderment overwhelms you and then you spy a beautiful chalice and think, “Oh! If my son becomes a priest, that’s the chalice I would buy for him!”

I walked from aisle to aisle in stunned amazement. The feeling can only be described as a heady mixture of greed and profound spiritual desire.

Such a splendiferous display of Catholic gilt will assuredly assuage any vestigial sense of Catholic guilt.

The superstore has everything for the discerning Catholic shopper/shopaholic. And by everything, I mean to write, “Holy Mackerel! It’s got E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G!”

It wasn’t quite mammon, nor was it simony, but it was close as I’d like to ever get to those particular roads to perdition — but it sure was fun to wade in on that glorious pile of loot. Of course, I’m only joking. Simony refers to the selling of holy things and none of the items for sale were blessed — though Fr. Dominic, the jovial and diminutive Redemptorist manager of the store, offered to bless anything I bought.

Just to slake my curiosity, I searched for the words, “largest Catholic religious arts store” on my cellphone and “Catholic Supply of St. Louis, Inc.,” came up. However, as you delve into their website, apparently, they only claim to be the largest “online Catholic religious arts store” in America.

Close, but no Catholic cigar.

I will admit that I have a bunch of priests on my shopping list every Christmas and those chalices were eyeing me like they just spotted the biggest sucker in the world traipsing into town.

The store still sells sick call kits and only those of a certain generation remember those. It’s the little set of items a priest needs for the anointing of the sick that are stored in a hollowed-out crucifix―very James Bond and, if we are to believe the latest permutation of that franchise, apparently Bond, James Bond, comes from a recusant Catholic family.

Go team!

These sick call kits are very difficult to find.

That’s why I bought three.

I also bought a marble statue of St. Michael the Archangel vanquishing the devil that was so large, it was almost life-size. And I don’t mean “human-life-size.” I mean “angel-life-size.”

Michael was holding a marble tipped steel spear in his perfectly sculpted hands. Magnificent.

It cost me a fortune to get it home and it was worth every single penny just to see the faces of my guests walking into my living room and shouting, “Where did you get that!?”

“Oh! You mean ‘Mike?’ Oh! I got him overseas…”

“I shall be the envy of all I survey!” I thought to myself as I loaded up the statue into the flatbed truck I had to rent to get it to the airport later that week.

I was so overwhelmed by the first floor of the “Blessed Virgin Mary Store,” I was almost too scared to go to the second floor.

And I’m glad I did. They sold clerical vestments there and I pawed through every chasuble they had. I oohed and ahhed my way even through the gaudy ones that the “young priests” would like and the stately and dignified  chasubles more in keeping with priests of my generation.

Thank God for credit cards and ATMs!

My head spun in capitalistic/Catholic élan as I chose some beautiful stoles and chasubles for priests I knew and waited patiently for the clerk rung me up.

“Our intention was to be the major religious art supply house for all of Vietnam and Asia,” said Fr. Dominic. “Some of the smaller religious arts stores throughout the continent can’t afford to bring in Italian marble statues and a large selection of chalices so we invested in this store and its inventory and helped fulfill a need among the faithful.”

Spoken like a true Catholic and capitalist!

God bless the Vietnamese Redemptorists! Apparently that vigorous and often deadly atheist communist indoctrination had no effect upon them at all.