Editor’s note: Missourian reporter Mary Nguyen is a Vietnamese American whose family has attended Marian Days for 27 years.
Four years after her divorce, Ha Tran, 50, continues to have trouble trusting people. After 30 years of marriage, she started to lock herself up emotionally. Though she is social, she has difficulty establishing serious relationships. She hadn’t taken a vacation in years.
It took a lot of convincing from her friends to get her to leave Morris County, N.J., and travel more than 1,200 miles to a small city in southwest Missouri. The occasion was a four-day celebration last weekend honoring the Virgin Mary and the Vietnamese Martyrs.
When her friends first told her about the event, known as Marian Days, she didn’t quite understand the appeal. Tran thought it was going to be a bunch of old people praying for four days — not an uncommon perception of religious gatherings. But when it was explained to her as a gathering of more than 60,000 Vietnamese of all ages camping around and on the grounds of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a seminary in Carthage, the idea of camping piqued her interest.
She was convinced to make the trek out to Carthage, a city with a population of less than 13,000, when she had heard that a friend in Kansas City — my father — had suffered a heart attack. Realizing that this might be the last time to see her friends and that she was past due for a vacation, she hopped on a plane and headed for Missouri.
Joseph Chang, meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country in Pomona, Calif., had long been anticipating his vacation to the Midwest. He, like Tran, arrived in Carthage with my family from Kansas City. Unlike Tran, however, who was new to the event, this would be Chang’s fifth time attending.
Chang, 22, first went through Marian Days as a sort of training before attending seminary at the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix. He came to Carthage because of personal issues and to avoid falling further into a ganglike crowd of peers in California. The experience at Marian Days and the year he spent at seminary deepened his faith and his respect for the priesthood.
“I got to talk to all the brothers, and they shared with us why they decided to be there,” he said. He recalled one brother who, at his first
attendance of Marian Days, looked up at the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary with a toddling Jesus in her arms and just began to weep.
Though at different stages of their lives and at opposite ends of the country, Tran and Chang would be brought together on the eve of Marian Days. Joined by heritage, religion and mutual friends, Tran and Chang, like so many other Vietnamese Catholics, would find sanctuary in the four-day celebration. The retreat to Carthage allows the tens of thousands of Vietnamese in attendance to not only reaffirm their faith but to reconnect with distant family and friends. It also becomes a stage for the Vietnamese to show their personal success and status amid changing values and cultural norms.
For 27 years, Vietnamese Catholics have come to celebrate the Virgin Mary and the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs in Carthage. The Martyrs serve as an inspiration to Vietnamese to maintain their Christian calling. In the “Great Massacre,” the persecution of the Church in Vietnam, more than 33,000 priests, nuns, catechists and lay people were killed from 1798-1861. In 1630, the first Christian Martyr was beheaded in Vietnam. The persecution and martyrdom continued until the Peace of 1862, when Saigon surrendered to the French. On June 19, 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Martyrs of Vietnam.
Through their religion, Vietnamese Catholics have found strength and have maintained unity despite the country being torn apart by civil conflict and communism in the 1970s. As immigrants to America, one of the first things many Vietnamese boat people did as they arrived was to join nearby parishes — hoping to build a foundation for their new lives with their faith.
Tran and her husband came to America, like many Vietnamese immigrants after the war, seeking greater opportunities not for themselves but for their children.
“We came here to give them more freedom,” Tran said.
By pursuing a better life in America for future generations, many immigrants left behind families and friends. Marian Days provides a definitive time of the year for old friends and family who have scattered around the country to reunite.
“It was amazing to see so many Vietnamese with so much faith, with so much hope,” she said.
But Marian Days isn’t without its share of shifting values.
With every year, younger generations become more Americanized. More Vietnamese people arrive with blond hair and dress much less modestly than a church function would invite. Friday evening, there was a break-dance circle that formed in the parking lot behind the gift shop. Electronica, rap, hip-hop and trance music blared from extravagant sound systems that amplify thumping bass tones. There was a growing appeal in bubble tea, fried Twinkies and cotton candy in the food tents — with less of an appetite for pho or banh mi.
Chang, too, said that sharing in the experience with others is a large part of why he continues to go to Marian Days. He said his experiences in Carthage, at the seminary and during Marian Days, has instilled in him a sense of calm that he sees lacking in a lot of his peers in California.
“Everything is crazy in California,” he said. “I just like coming to Missouri and taking a break from it all.”