Vietnamese Immigrants Swell Catholic Clergy

 Growing Influence on a Changing Church


By Gustav Niebuhr , April 24, 2000


NEW ORLEANS, April 20 -- Twenty-five years ago this month, when Saigon fell to Communist armies, the tract of land off Dwyer Road was a just another soggy stretch of wetlands that ran from New Orleans's eastern fringe to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, many miles away.

"This was swamp," said Msgr. Dominic Luong, a Roman Catholic priest and Fordham University graduate who arrived here in the late 1970's.

But these days Monsignor Luong can look from his modest office and see a spacious beige church bordered by a trim lawn where three flags -- the Stars and Stripes, a banner representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the yellow and red flag of the former South Vietnam -- snap in the spring breeze.

The church that rose from this drained swamp is Mary Queen of Vietnam, spiritual home to 5,000 parishioners and a landmark both for the growing influence of Vietnamese Catholics in the United States and for the larger church, too, whose demographic contours are being reshaped by immigration.

Major changes in immigration law, together with political and economic upheavals abroad, have brought an influx of Latin Americans, Asians, eastern Europeans and Africans, many of them Catholics whose impact on the church may prove as great as that of the Germans, Irish and Italians who preceded them a century ago.

Among this new group, the Vietnamese are a small minority, but their presence is hard to miss. They have formed new parishes and missions across this very Catholic city, as well as in Texas and California, established an annual pilgrimage of tens of thousands of people to southwestern Missouri and, most significantly, produced a disproportionately high number of young men and women studying to become priests and nuns -- when such religious vocations have been in short supply among American-born Catholics.

A few miles to the west, for example, in New Orleans's stately Uptown, Vietnamese seminarians make up a fifth of those studying for the priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary.

On social issues, they tend to be conservative, opposed to abortion and the idea of women as priests.

"Religion is their center -- they brought that with them," said Kyle Dave, 29, a seminarian who is a native of New Orleans and grew up in a neighborhood that absorbed many Vietnamese immigrants.

American Catholic officials say most Vietnamese immigrants are Buddhists, but about 300,000 -- perhaps a third of them -- are Catholics.

That amounts to less than 1 percent of the estimated 61 million Catholics in the United States. But Vietnamese seminarians make up nearly 3 percent of the approximately 3,500 men studying for the priesthood, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an organization at Georgetown University that studies such trends.

Michael W. Foley, an associate professor of political science at Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., who conducted a study of several new immigrant groups for the American bishops, said, "Seminary enrollments have been on a down slide since the 1960's, and we see some modest recoveries as a result of this new blood."

"The same thing is true of the church as a whole," Mr. Foley said. "The Catholic Church is the only mainline church that has not lost members over the past 20 years, and I think a case could be made for the immigrants as the primary reason."

In May, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will ordain seven seminarians as deacons, a transitional step toward their becoming priests. Among them is Hoang M. Tuong, 31, a parishioner at Mary Queen of Vietnam, who arrived here in 1984, after he and his family fled Vietnam by sea in a tidal exodus of "boat people." Not long after the family arrived here, he entered a high school seminary, a first step along the road he is now following.

"Vietnamese families are very big," Mr. Tuong said, adding that parents often hope to have "at least one" child become a priest or nun. "I have only three sisters," he said. "My family is very small."

Monsignor Luong said he was one of 11 children -- 8 boys and 3 girls. One brother also became a priest and serves among the Montagnard people in central Vietnam.

Monsignor Luong was ordained in 1965 in New York. Over the last two decades, he has become well known in Catholic circles for his work among Vietnamese immigrants.

He recalled the early days in New Orleans East as difficult for Vietnamese Catholics. "We had nothing," he said. "We worshiped outdoors for two years." It sometimes rained on Sundays, but the weather, as he remembered it, always seemed to clear before Mass.

The parish at which he presides was founded in 1983, the beginning of a decadelong boom in the area's Vietnamese population, as immigrants who had been settled in other parts of the nation began to move here. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said about 20,000 Catholics were of Asian background, primarily Vietnamese -- about 4 percent of the half-million parishioners here.

Other big centers for Vietnamese Catholics are Houston; San Jose, Calif., and Orange County, Calif. There are smaller communities as well. Monsignor Luong said he recently traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, for the installation of a Vietnamese-born priest there.

Behind his office is a two-story structure that houses a preschool, run by Vietnamese-born nuns who were busy supervising dozens of children in an Easter egg hunt earlier this week.

Sister Mary Faustina Nguyen Bach Yen, 28, said she was 8 years old when her family fled Vietnam in 1979. After more than a year in a refugee camp, the family moved to New Orleans.

The third child among eight, she originally helped her parents in a small business. But, she said, "I was searching for inner peace." As a teenager, she felt a call to become a nun and eventually joined the Daughters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, the order that supervises the preschool. It has 40 nuns, and four novices preparing to take vows. But, she said, "This is just a small branch in the United States." The order has hundreds of nuns in Vietnam.

Another Vietnamese order visible in the United States is the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, which has a monastery in Carthage, Mo. Each summer, the site becomes a pilgrimage destination for Vietnamese families. "They draw 30,000 to 40,000," Monsignor Luong said.

But as Vietnamese immigrants become rooted in the United States, a question arises. How long will such devotion endure in a culture that esteems material wealth and individual choice?

Already, some of the nuns at the preschool say, it is less easy to talk to a younger generation about a religious vocation than it was to speak with their older brothers and sisters a decade ago. The preschool's director, Sister Rose Tin Vu, said many adolescents' interests tended toward American culture. "Money and fashion" often preoccupy them, she said.

Sister Mary Faustina, who teaches religious education classes to teenagers, agreed. "Most of the teenagers, they've got peer pressure," she said. "It's very hard to listen to the inner voice, to listen to the heart."

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

© 2000 by Neil Mishalov