BARLING — Sacred Heart of Mary Church’s Vietnamese community finds inspiration and strength in the stories of its Vietnamese martyrs.
Although the Church knows the names of only 117 martyrs, St. John Paul II chose to canonize both the named and unnamed martyrs who lost their lives in during persecutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The martyrs, whose estimated number is between 130,000 and 150,000, were canonized on June 19, 1988, and given a single feast day, Nov. 24.
On Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, Father Peter Quang Le, associate pastor for Vietnamese ministry, led a procession from the church to the parish center for Mass. An altar containing first degree relics of a Vietnamese martyr was carried in the procession.
“This year about 360 people attended our celebration,” Father Le said, “most from Fort Smith, but some traveling from as far as Rogers.”
Before Mass began, a group of dancers performed to commemorate the martyrs’ lives. A 21-member choir in formal attire led the congregation in worship.
Choir director Hang Nguyen said the choir practices and sings each Sunday and on special feast days. As a recent immigrant to the United States, she said she is happy to have found a parish community where she can join with recent and not-so-recent immigrants and second- generation Vietnamese families to share their unique cultural and religious traditions.
After Mass, the community had a small feast and groups called Thieu Nhi performed skits.
“Our groups are divided according to our ages,” Hang Nguyen’s daughter Ann explained. “Each group performed a skit showing how, like the Vietnamese martyrs, we can stay true to our faith.”
Ann Nguyen said the Vietnamese community has helped her family adjust after their move four years ago.
“My grandparents live here,” she said, “and even though I miss Vietnam, I am happy to see my grandparents and am making new friends. Father Peter (Quang Le) helped me feel welcome and trained me to be an altar server.”
She is a sixth grader at Christ the King School, where her younger brother Savio, who was born in the United States, is a preschooler.
Father Le explained that devotion to Our Lady of La Vang, whose feast day is Nov. 22, and to the Vietnamese martyrs strengthens the community’s faith.
“The Vietnamese martyrs give us good examples of faith in times of persecution and today. We cannot succumb to the culture of death; we have to choose to follow God’s will in every circumstance. Our community has chosen the Vietnamese martyrs as its patron saints.”
Our Lady of La Vang visited Vietnamese Catholics in 1798, at the height of religious persecution, following an edict ordering the execution of every Catholic in the king’s realm. Catholic refugees fled into the woods of La Vang in central Vietnam. They gathered and prayed each night at a tree, and, as more and more became ill from exposure, they felt frightened and discouraged. One night a beautiful lady who called herself the “Blessed Mother” came, taught them how to make medicine from local forest herbs and promised to intercede for them with her son. St. John Paul II entrusted the Vietnamese Catholic Church to the protection of Our Lady of La Vang during World Youth Day 1993.
Sacred Heart of Mary’s Vietnamese community attends Marian Days in honor of Our Lady of La Vang in Carthage, Mo., each August, and this tradition also sustains their faith.
“We regularly recite the rosary to Our Lady of La Vang to save souls,” Father Le said.
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