For 18 days in a tiny 28-foot by 6-foot boat, 26 Vietnamese refugees cling to life. It is 1979 and they are part of the vast tide of humanity fleeing repression in their homeland. They have already weathered a fierce storm in their tiny craft. They are starving, surviving only on meager rations of rainwater. And faith.
As much as the boat, faith is what keeps them afloat.
Each day, twice a day, the Nguyen family prays and recites the rosary. On the final day, they spot land. Despite their exhaustion, the refugees row all day and finally reach shore in the Philippines.
“My question is, where did we find the energy?” asks Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen.
Answering his own question, he says, “Only (through) God, with the intercession of the Blessed Mother.” To the Vietnamese faithful, Mary is a pillar represented as Our Lady of La Vang, a Marian apparition that first came over 200 years ago to pray and offer comfort and intercession.
To the bishop, that perilous trip and Mother Mary laid his path to the priesthood and life in the United States.
In July 2016 a team of Orange County Catholic Vietnamese volunteers made an impassioned proposal to Bishop Kevin Vann for his approval of a long-wanted effort to create a shrine for Our Lady of La Vang. Two weeks later, Dr. Elysabeth Nguyen, La Vang Shrine Committee, Project Manager, was in Vietnam. Having prayed at the Our Lady of La Vang shrine, she received approval to move forward with the project.
“If I didn’t believe before, I do now,” she said of intercession by the Blessed Mother. “She really listens.”
Two tales, 37 years apart, that are testaments to the Vietnamese faithful of the love and support of Our Lady of La Vang.
And now, Orange County Catholics will soon have a shrine of their own at which they can pray and meditate.
On Saturday, October 27, ground was broken at the site of the Marian Court at Christ Cathedral for the Our Lady of La Vang shrine.
More than 200 congregants attended a ceremony at the Cultural Center on the Christ Cathedral Campus. Then about 30 volunteers, along with Bishop Vann, posed with shovels and tossed dirt in a sandbox on the site, while two trucks loaded with dirt idled nearby.
Bishop Vann said the shrine is important on two levels; to recognize the importance of the Vietnamese congregation in Orange County, home to the world’s largest Vietnamese immigrant population, and as a “testament to their faith.”
Bishop Vann, who came to the Diocese of Orange in 2012, said he was aware there had been a desire for a shrine before he arrived.
In July 2016 he met with Vietnamese volunteers about their vision.
“I said, ‘Let’s move this along,’” Bishop Vann recalled.
After the bishop green-lighted the effort, it came together quickly.
Nearly $11 million has been pledged and over $8 million collected for the $10 million project, with funds overseen by the Orange Catholic Foundation. The shrine and plaza are expected to be in place in time for the dedication of Christ Cathedral in July, 2019.
For generations, Our Lady of La Vang has held special relevance to Vietnamese Catholics. She first appeared in the late 18th century to persecuted villagers who had fled to the jungle. Many were starving and diseased when the apparition of Mary, in a traditional ao dai garment, appeared in the tree canopy. She carried in her arms an infant child and was accompanied by two angels. The villagers were comforted and told how to boil leaves from the trees for medicine.
In 1802 the message got out about the apparition and Catholics flocked to the area to pray. A chapel was built in Hai Phu in 1820. After it burned down, another was erected with a shrine that remains there today.
Since the first appearance, Vietnamese Catholics and non-Catholics alike have turned to Our Lady of La Vang in times of need. Many share tales similar to Bishop Nguyen’s of comfort and intercession.
In the United States, Vietnamese Catholics have helped start 19 parishes and shrines to Our Lady of La Vang, including one in Santa Ana celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Although the Vatican has yet to recognize the event as a Marian apparition, its importance has been noted, most recently by Pope John Paul II.
The shrine on the Christ Cathedral campus was designed by two architects Aaron Torrence and Trần Quốc Trung, with help from a team of designers. It will feature a 12-foot-tall statue of Mary in traditional Vietnamese garments, cradling the infant child. They will stand beneath an up swirl of Alpha-shaped ribbon of stainless steel panels under a glass-paned roof. There will also be a plaza, four Rosary gardens, with one that has
the shape of the Greek letter Omega, and room for future statuary honoring Mary.
“It’s a great symbol for us,” said Bishop Nguyen.
“People have been yearning for this for a long time,” said Elysabeth Nguyen.