CARTHAGE, Mo. - For 20 years a Roman Catholic order of Vietnamese has flourished in this small southern Missouri town, an exile group kept intact largely because of a bishop's generosity. But the group of more than 200 has never lost sight of its first priority - evangelism in Vietnam.
Every day the priests and brothers pray to rejoin the members of their religious group who are trapped in communist Vietnam. And over 18 years, their prayers and rituals have created the largest annual gathering of Vietnamese in the United States.
More than 50,000 Vietnamese are expected to come to Carthage for a Marian Days celebration that began Thursday and ends this morning with an outdoor Mass. Carthage's population is 11,000.
The Vietnamese visitors come to honor the Virgin Mary, reconnect with their culture and reunite with relatives.
"The main reason we come is to worship Mother Mary," said Quy Nguyen of Overland Park, Kan. "But it is also a reunion for all of the Vietnamese Catholics."
'Mary is our hope'
The priests and brothers, all members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, began the four-day celebration 18 years ago.
They believe that Mary helped keep them safe in their escape from Vietnam and that she will help lead them back there.
"Mary is our hope," Brother John Nghi said. "We relied on her for our exodus, and we rely on her to help us with our lives."
"She is human," said Brother Phillip Kha. "She can feel for us, what we feel."
Like the priests and brothers, most who come to the annual Marian Day events are refugees. They fled Vietnam by boat after Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975.
The first Marian Days drew about 1,500 people. The next year 4,500 came, then 6,000, then 8,500. Since 1986, the numbers have surpassed 40,000.
"We never thought it would grow into this," said Nghi.
A city of tents was erected Thursday, with tarps, ropes and plastic awnings intertwining on nearly every open spot of the order's 30 acres. Wooden arrows painted with city names point out the camp sites. Chicago, Albuquerque, Memphis, Denver, New Orleans, Fort Worth. Every state is represented, the brothers said.
Only teen-agers, most of whom were born in the United States, tend to converse in English. Older visitors speak Vietnamese.
Sixteen Masses are said over the course of the four-day celebration. Thursday, a reverent silence fell over the crowd of more than 5,000 as an opening Mass took place at dusk. The most noticeable movements were of the cool worshipers in the humid, 85-degree air.
Communion was given by more than 60 priests who fanned out into the crowd. The people formed a procession after the Mass, following the priests and carrying paper lanterns with lighted candles. Slowly the crowd filled the courtyard surrounding a 7-ton, 33-foot-tall statue of Mary holding Jesus. A third figure, representing the Vietnamese boat people, is carved at Mary's feet.
More than 170 members of the Co-Redemptrix order left Vietnam by boat in 1975. It was the second exodus for the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, which began in 1953 in North Vietnam.
The order was forced to move to South Vietnam in its first year of existence because of religious persecution by the communists, Nghi said.
Although the majority of people in Vietnam are Buddhist, the order had grown to about 624 by 1975, according to the order's history.
Only about 170 of the brothers and priests made it out of the country before the communists took control of Saigon. Once in the United States, they settled on land formerly owned by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, thanks to the intervention of Bishop Bernard Law, now a cardinal in Boston.