From Surviving to Thriving: Once Refugees, Vietnamese Catholics Make Up Vibrant Part of US Church Today

About 700,000 strong, Vietnamese-American Catholics are working to pass their faith and culture on to the next generation.

Top: Two smiling boys are proud members of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement in the U.S.A, a national nonprofit with 140 chapters in U.S. Vietnamese parishes. The movement helps educate elementary through high school-aged Vietnamese-American youth in the Catholic faith and helps them to become good citizens in society. Bottom: A float carrying relics of 117 Vietnamese martyrs is part of a procession of Vietnamese Catholics through the streets of Carthage, Missouri, during Marian Days held the first weekend of August. The Saturday afternoon procession culminates in an evening Mass on the campus of the Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer.
Top: Two smiling boys are proud members of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement in the U.S.A, a national nonprofit with 140 chapters in U.S. Vietnamese parishes. The movement helps educate elementary through high school-aged Vietnamese-American youth in the Catholic faith and helps them to become good citizens in society. Bottom: A float carrying relics of 117 Vietnamese martyrs is part of a procession of Vietnamese Catholics through the streets of Carthage, Missouri, during Marian Days held the first weekend of August. The Saturday afternoon procession culminates in an evening Mass on the campus of the Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer. (photo: Courtesy photos / Phuc Andy Nguyen/Don Hoang Nguyen/Duc Tra)

A few days before communist armies captured the former South Vietnam capital of Saigon in April 1975, Father Timothy Tran’s parents fled by boat with his then-baby brother and 5-year-old sister.

The motor on the small boat they boarded with many other Vietnamese didn’t work, and only when the refugees were at sea did they discover it also had a leak, Father Tran, a priest of the Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer, told the Register.

After bailing water from the craft non-stop for several days, they were picked up by a U.S. ship, which took them to a refugee camp in the Philippines — one step on their journey to the United States, where Father Timothy, 46, was born. 

“When they left, they had no idea where they were going,” said the priest, who manages his congregation’s public affairs and also serves on the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese’s tribunal. “They were just going out in the ocean and praying and hoping they’ll find land in a different country, or someone was going to pick them up.”

Father Tran’s family members were among the 1 million people who left Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) within two years of its fall, according to Vietnamese government figures. By 1995, 3 million refugees had fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with more than 1 million eventually resettling in the United States, according to the History Channel

Of the more than 2.1 million Vietnamese now in the U.S., about 700,000 are Catholics, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Many have similar stories of enduring hardship with the help of their faith. 

Decades later, in close-knit families and communities around the country, Vietnamese Catholics continue to practice their faith and live their culture, as well as strive to pass it on to their American-born children. 


Celebrating Faith and Culture

For evidence of Vietnamese Catholicism’s vibrancy in America, look no further than Carthage, Missouri, in early August. Every year since 1978, the small town is the site of “Marian Days,” a time for Vietnamese-American Catholics to come together to celebrate faith, family and culture. Father Tran’s congregation, which was founded in Vietnam and has its provincial monastery in Carthage, organizes the annual affair.

The four-day festival, aimed at strengthening the faith of the Vietnamese-American community and keeping their unique traditions alive, draws up to 50,000 people from across the United States and beyond to the Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer's 28-acre monastery campus, located about 140 miles south of Kansas City. 

Reflecting Vietnamese Catholics’ strong devotion to Mary and her Immaculate Heart, the festival includes a procession with a statue of the Blessed Mother brought from Fatima, Portugal, the site of the Church-approved Marian apparition. Attendees pray, listen to talks and assist at Masses presided over by bishops and priests. Women and some men wear traditional áo dài: long dresses slit to the waist at the sides and worn over pants. Traditional songs and dances and Vietnamese food are part of the celebration that provides an opportunity for families and friends living in different regions to come together, Father Tran said. 

“I think that one of the things that we see often during Marian Days is people coming just to give thanks for giving them the opportunity to not only just get them over here safely but being able to thrive in the United States,” he told the Register.  


Orange County Devotions

Another place Vietnamese Catholics come together is Orange County in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The county has the largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the U.S., including 85,000 Vietnamese Catholics, according to Father Vincent Pham, director of the Diocese of Orange’s Vietnamese Catholic Center and the bishop’s liaison to the Vietnamese Catholic community.

Orange County is home to the largest Little Saigon enclave in the United States, where many Vietnamese live and run businesses in a county that has a climate Father Pham describes as similar to Vietnam’s. The diocesan priest has lived in Orange County since 1985, when he emigrated alone from Vietnam at age 16. During a perilous boat journey, he and the other passengers had no food or water for three days and were besieged by pirates before a fishing boat picked them up, he recounted. 

Two years ago, the Diocese of Orange started its own Marian Days” in order to have a festival closer to home, especially for the elderly, said Father Pham, the event’s chairperson. The diocese’s celebration centers around the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine near Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. The shrine, which includes a 12-foot-tall statue of the Blessed Mother, is dedicated to the 1798 apparition of Mary to Vietnamese Catholics who were hiding in the jungle so they could practice their faith during a time of persecution.

The diocese’s two-day festival features a procession and healing Mass. The celebration of Mass among Vietnamese Catholics is characterized by chanted prayer and a communal Rosary before the liturgy begins, explained Father Pham.

The chant tradition comes from Buddhist Vietnamese, who make up 43% of the U.S. Vietnamese population, according to a Pew Research Center study. Vietnamese Catholics share some traditions with Buddhists, including the celebration of the Vietnamese new year, or Tet, which usually takes place a month after the Western new year.


Rooted in Christ

The Vietnamese Catholic church Liz Chi Pham’s parents attended when they arrived with their family in Minnesota in 1977 was a source of comfort and strength and where they could worship in their own language. 

Born in Pennsylvania two days after her parents arrived in the United States, she grew up sometimes feeling neither fully Vietnamese nor American. The youth group at the family’s parish, St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien in Minneapolis, supported her as well as her parents. 

“Instilling in me that my identity is in Christ helped shape who I became, and I just feel really blessed that I had that youth group to help navigate all that and kind of shape who I am today,” Chi Pham told the Register. 

Now 46 and one of the youth-group leaders, she helps Vietnamese-Catholic young people find their identity in Christ while connecting with their Vietnamese community and culture. St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien is one of the 140 parish chapters of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement in the U.S.A., a nonprofit that seeks to teach youth to be virtuous Christians, to evangelize and to serve others.

About 250 youth, from elementary age through high school, show up at the parish for youth group on Saturday evenings, which includes Eucharistic adoration, singing Vietnamese songs, and lessons on the Eucharist and catechesis, Chi Pham said. Both Vietnamese and English are spoken.

“They find unity with other peers that understand where they are in terms of that whole Vietnamese-American identity,” she said.


Vietnamese Vocations

Chi Pham first met Father Tim Tran, no direct relation to the CRM priest of the same name, when he came to the youth group as a 7-year-old. 

As a college student planning to become a doctor, he continued to serve as a group leader. Chi Pham saw his gifts and began suggesting that he consider priesthood. He eventually took the suggestion and was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2020. Along with the importance of the family, the diocesan priest Father Tran said the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement he grew up with is a “seedbed for vocations.” 

Vietnamese Catholics make up only about 1% of the U.S. population but 4% of the 2022 ordinands to the priesthood, according to a CARA survey

Many Vietnamese priests in the U.S. were born in Vietnam, where vocations are flourishing, the diocesan Father Tran said. A higher proportion also belong to religious orders where foreign priests can find security and belonging, he added. 

Jesuit Father Quang Tran was born in New Orleans and found himself drawn to the Society of Jesus. Although not the biggest factor in him joining the Jesuits, Father Quang notes that members of the Society of Jesus were the first to evangelize Vietnam, and the missionary St. Francis Xavier in particular enjoys strong devotion among Vietnamese Catholics.

When Father Quang celebrated his first Mass in 2015, he had a special concelebrant: an uncle who had been denied priestly ordination for 20 years by the communist government after choosing to remain in Vietnam in 1975. During the decades-long interruption of his seminary formation, Father Quang’s uncle had served as a catechist, smuggling bread and wine in soy sauce bottles into a prison where incarcerated priests would consecrate them so he could bring them to parishes. The heroic catechist’s archbishop was none other than Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, who spent nine years in solitary confinement.

During the homily at Father Quang’s first Mass, his uncle and the new Vietnamese-American priest both spoke about “how God brought us through all of this and brought us to this point,” in Vietnamese and English respectively. 

Father Quang, 38, grew up in New Orleans East, a thriving Vietnamese Catholic community centered around the parish of Mary, Queen of Vietnam. The Vietnamese community in New Orleans East developed after Archbishop Philip Hannan, leader of the Archdiocese of New Orleans from 1965 to 1988, encouraged Vietnamese refugees to come to his arcdiocese. Father Quang, who is finishing a doctorate in psychology at Boston College, noted that Archbishop Hannan’s invitation was starkly different than the reception Vietnamese refugees received in other parts of the U.S. 

While many newcomers went to places with larger Vietnamese populations, such as New Orleans East, Orange County, Houston, San Jose, and Dallas, other Vietnamese refugees settled in smaller communities. In Bay City, Texas, where the CRM’s Father Tran grew up, the only other Vietnamese residents were his relatives. The family settled there because they found work, he said. Even though their parish was not Vietnamese, the family was very active in it, and Father Tran’s own father was ordained a permanent deacon.


A Source of Strength

Wherever they put down roots in their new country, Vietnamese Catholics tell stories about what they suffered in the context of a faith that offered hope, Father Quang said.

He noted that in the shrine in his parents’ living room — a common feature in Vietnamese homes — is a silver crucifix his grandmother brought while fleeing communism in North Vietnam in the 1960s and that his mother carried from Saigon a decade later. 

“I think we can all agree that it was the Catholic faith that gave our parents the strength to get to where they are today,” Father Quang said. “We cannot deny that. Whether we believe or not, we can’t deny that that is where they drew their strength from.”

Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis Father Tran’s father spent five years as a prisoner in one of the communist “reeducation” camps, and he attributed his survival to God. Because of his military background, Father Tran’s father and his family were able to come to the United States in 1993, when Father Tran was 3 1/2 years old. Rather than choosing a warm climate, Father Tran’s father brought his family to Minnesota in winter because of its strong Vietnamese-Catholic faith community. 

“I still remember the taxi door opening up and taking my first step in snow,” said the young diocesan priest.  

Chi Pham, who also arrived in the northern state nicknamed the Land of 10,000 Lakes as a young child, said she is grateful she is making her life and faith journey with her Vietnamese community.

She invites other Catholics to attend a Vietnamese Mass, despite the language difference, to see how we’re all connected through Christ.

“Even though we’re doing the Mass in Vietnamese, we’re open and welcome to others coming and celebrating with us,” Chi Pham said. “I think that truly unites us all when we can come, no matter what language it’s in, to celebrate the Eucharist.”