Last spring Fr. Thomas and I asked the Vietnamese Community if they would like to build a grotto to the Blessed Mother as she appeared to the Vietnamese people in 1798. They said yes and began the grotto in July. The statue was ordered from Vietnam when they had raised the money. It took months for it to arrive in the United States. Last Tuesday the work began in earnest. A small group have worked over a week to build the shrine/grotto to Our Lady of La Vang and they hope to have it finished in the couple of weeks.
Roman Catholicism was brought to Vietnam by Father Diego Aduart, a Dominican from Spain who established a mission in Dinh Cat. The mission did not grow until an Italian Jesuit who was fluent in Vietnamese came a few years later. Many people began to convert to Catholicism including an aunt to the reigning king. By the year 1593, thirty seven parishes had been established around Dinh Cat.
About 30 years later Fr. Alexander de Rhodes a French Jesuit arrived and initiated the Vietnamese alphabets that are still in use today. For more than 40 years Catholicism was tolerated due to the opened trade relations with Spain, France and Portugal. As the Nguyen dynasty reunited the north and south regions into what is now Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty decreed Catholicism as a foreign religious sect leading a working class revolt against the dynasty. In 1798 what followed was direct attacks upon the thirty seven parishes seeking to exterminate all Catholics. More than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics died as martyrs.
Many Christians fled to the jungle near Quang Tri, a village in central Vietnam. Many died from the bitter cold weather, wild beasts, jungle sickness and starvation. At night they many times gathered in small groups to pray the rosary. Unexpectedly one night they were visited by an apparition of Our Blessed Mother in a long cape, holding a child in her arms, with two angels at her sides. She comforted them and told them to boil the leaves from the surrounding trees to use as medicine. She also told them that from that day on, all those who came to this place to pray, would have their prayers heard and answered.
Despite its isolated location in the high mountains, her name spread and groups of people continued to find a way through the jungle to pray to the Lady of La Vang. When the persecution ended in 1886, the small chapel that had been built was replaced with 3 chapels. In 1901 a church was built, followed by a larger church in 1924. In 1961 the church of La Vang was recognized as a national Marian Centre. At the same time Pope John XXIII elevated the church to the Basilica of La Vang. It was destroyed in 1972 during the Vietnam War. After the War, the La Vang complex enlarged to include a retreat center, a hospitality center, an outdoor amphitheater and a beautiful statue of Mary commemorating her apparitions.
In 1988 Pope John Paul II in the canonizing ceremony of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs, publicly recognized the importance and significance of the Lady of La Vang and expressed a desire for the rebuilding of the La Vang Basilica.
As our Diocese became the welcoming Diocese for the Vietnamese people when they fled Vietnam following the Communist takeover of the country, St Agnes became the welcoming parish here in Springfield and our Vietnamese community has become a vibrant part of St. Agnes Cathedral. We are planning a special dedication and blessing with our Bishop on May 26th and all are invited.