ST. PETERSBURG, FL – A couple approach the altar at St. Joseph Catholic Church. More than 200 people watch them walk, afternoon light spilling onto the carpet through stained glass windows. The man is dressed in blue pin stripes, the woman wears a flowing pink ao dai, traditional Vietnamese tunic and pants. It’s Hung The Nguyen and Tuoi Thi Tran’s 50th anniversary, and the whole family came from as far as Houston to celebrate and receive a special blessing from the Rev. Pierre Pham Van Chinh.
Father Pierre has traveled far as well. After being sentenced to four years of hard labor in Vietnam for illegally celebrating Mass, he can now bless this couple without fear. But in St. Joseph’s, Father Pierre has to celebrate Sunday Mass at the unusual time of 4 p.m. instead of the traditional morning spot, reserved for Mass in English. His congregation has been shuffled to six different churches since the late ’70s. They never had a place of their own.
Soon though, Father Pierre and the entire Vietnamese Catholic community in St. Petersburg will realize a piece of their own American dream: They will have their own church.
It’s taken 10 years to raise the $400,000 needed to start work on the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church, to be located right next to St. Matthew’s on 94th Street in Largo. The designer, John Nguyen, is a church member and volunteered his time and business to the cause. Architects recently submitted plans for the site to the city for approval and hope to break ground in September, though they aren’t sure when construction will finish.
“I truly believe if we have a church we will bring more people into the community and bring more joy,” Nguyen said. “When I buy my house, I will take care of my house better than if I rent the house.”
Nguyen came from Vietnam in 1980 after serving five years in the Communist government’s prison camps, a link of hardship shared with many of his fellow immigrant church members. Once in the United States, Nguyen joined a small congregation of Vietnamese Catholics worshiping in a church next to the diocese offices. Then they began migrating from church to church, moving from Fourth Street South to 90th Avenue North, any place that had room for their growing numbers. They landed at St. Joseph’s about five years ago, around the same time Father Pierre arrived at the church.
The congregation has grown from seven families at the start to more than 200. Last Sunday, the afternoon Vietnamese service was much larger the 9 a.m. morning Mass, celebrated by the Rev. Callist Nyambo and a gospel choir. Both Pierre and Nyambo are immigrants, serving their flocks under the massive wooden beams of the 75-year-old church.
St. Joseph’s, at 2102 22nd Ave S., originally served only white people. Yet as the neighborhood became more integrated, the church did, too. The English-speaking congregation is now one of the most diverse in St. Petersburg. Although they appreciate their fellow parishioners, the afternoon Mass is entirely in Vietnamese, so there isn’t a lot of crossover.
“We don’t understand what they say, but it’s beautiful,” said Deborah Fillyau, a member of the English congregation.
Vietnamese parishioners seek a service in their own language not just for comprehension, but to preserve their traditions. Father Pierre fears the American melting pot will leave no room for the culture of the country he left behind.
“They ask us to accept it, to be American Catholics,” he said. “But I have culture. I have an identity that is Vietnamese.”
The Vietnamese Catholic population in the United States is estimated at 350,000, about a quarter of the 1.4 million Vietnamese in this country, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhists. Catholicism in Vietnam dates back to the 16th century when Western missionaries arrived. After the country became a French colony in the late 19th century, Catholicism was the religion supported by the colonial government. When the Communist revolution began to kick the French rulers out in the late 1940s, Catholics were persecuted.
Father Pierre was one of the persecuted. Communists put poison in his father’s tea, killing him when Pierre was in third grade. His family fled to South Vietnam. Later, while studying for the priesthood, he kept a book on his shelf translated by a bishop from Polish to Vietnamese. It was titled How to Kill the Church Effectively.
“I needed to understand them and see how communists view the church,” he said.
Now Father Pierre doesn’t worry about the welfare of his faith as much as his culture. Second- and third-generation Vietnamese Americans sometimes grow up ignorant of their parents’ language. He wants to teach language classes but never has space available.
But the new church will have a multi-purpose room. The new church will have youth programs. And Mass will be celebrated every Sunday in Vietnamese — at 9 a.m. Sharp.
By Erica Lee Nelson
Published on the Poynter Institute’s pointssouth.net, July, 2003