NEW YORK – After decades of pleas Vietnamese Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston can now celebrate the Eucharist in their native tongue with the establishment of the archdiocese’s first Vietnamese parish on Sunday.
About 600 faithful filled the pews of Saint Clement Church in Medford – now a part of the Blessed Andrew Phú Yên Parish – for what auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell of Boston told Crux felt like “a big celebration” with a big choir, drums and dancing.
“At the Mass yesterday I was just full of gratitude about the timing and everything,” said Father Phong Pham, who O’Connell installed as pastor on Sunday. “I was filled with gratitude that God really answered the cry of the Vietnamese Catholics and I think this is just the perfect timing and just God’s spirit and God’s hands were written all over it and on the face of the people.”
“Everyone was so, so happy,” he told Crux.
O’Connell first got requests to create a Vietnamese parish in the archdiocese in 2017, less than a year after his arrival as auxiliary bishop. At the time he said he would look into it, but cautioned he wouldn’t push for it unless they were ready to take it on financially. The Vietnamese parishioner’s response was a formal request to O’Connell to create a parish and that they were ready to financially support it.
“Then I got a call to come into the archdiocese for an emergency meeting because St. Clement Parish was failing,” O’Connell remembers. “I said, ‘well, the Vietnamese are looking for a parish.’ I called [Cardinal Seán O’Malley] and he was thrilled that there was an idea.”
With diocesan support, O’Connell got approval from Vietnamese communities. Then, this past August he brought in Pham to ease the concerns of the pre-existing English speaking population.
“I think the basic concern was would I speak English and secondly whether I can handle the job and after that first meeting their fears were all eradicated and the anxiety calmed,” said Pham. “The folks really opened. They opened themselves to the call of the spirit to change.”
He also acknowledged that challenges exist for both the Vietnamese and English speaking communities. The English speaking community used to have four Masses and now they have one and a bilingual Mass. The Vietnamese speaking community, meanwhile, have to travel a distance to get to one of two Masses on Sunday morning or the bilingual Mass in the afternoon.
For those reasons Pham said he works hard to show both communities that the “archdiocese does care a lot about them.”
The parish’s Vietnamese parishioners come from three Massachusetts communities – Chelsea, Malden and East Boston. And although it can be a drive, Pham calls it “a dream come true” for these traditionally separated communities to celebrate together. He also notes the significance of the name of the parish. Andrew Phú Yên is the first Vietnamese martyr.
“It’s just beautiful,” Pham said.
However, there’s a reason the parish was failing before this decision was made. According to Pham, the parish is still half-a-million dollars in debt, which the new pastor assures he’s not worrying about and will keep his focus on the pews.
“I worry about making sure that I’m there for their birth. I’m there for their entrance to Heaven. I’m there for everything,” he told Crux. “Even though we’re broke, I believe in getting people back into church and to know that God is good, God is kind, and the archdiocese is behind them and I’m just focused on that and the money will come and it has come.”
Through Pham’s leadership, the parish has also continued charitable donations despite the financial hardship. It donates seven percent of the weekly collection to charity in addition to food donations to the food bank and to Vietnam, a thrift store for the poor that will soon open, and building three houses in Vietnam.
Another decision on the horizon for Pham is what to do with the parish’s two school buildings that closed in 2017. He said he will not sell the buildings. Instead, his personal plan is to turn it into an assisted living facility for the elderly, particularly the Vietnamese.
“I would like to keep the buildings for generations to come,” Pham said. “Selling it we’re going to lose it. It’s a temporary fix. I’m looking for the parish to be able to sustain them for years to come.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg