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Vietnamese Church Thrives in Arlington

An Arlington Church is the center of the burgeoning Vietnamese Catholic community in Northern Virginia.

The Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church was the epitome of organized chaos on Saturday. The Catholic parish held a fundraiser to prepare for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and many dozens of families turned out to participate and lend a hand.

In the auditorium, sandwiches and dried fruit were doled out in one corner while bowl after bowl of steaming noodle soup came out of the kitchen in another. In another room, big slabs of Banh Tet, a traditional Vietnamese rice cake, sat on a table top, waiting to be purchased. In yet another room, people got their hair cut for $10 with all the proceeds going toward the church. And, of course, seemingly every square inch of the premises was saturated with happy, boisterous children.

It was a veritable hurricane of food, customs and community. But every hurricane has an eye of calm that it rotates around and the eye of this hurricane was Dr. Thu Bui.

Bui is serving his 10th term as chairman of the parish council for the Arlington church, the first Vietnamese Catholic church in America. He has been an active member since its inception in 1976 and is now working to bring to fruition a multimillion dollar expansion that he says is much needed.

"When we started in 1976," Bui said during an interview at Holy Martyrs, "[we had] 25 families. Right now we have almost 2000 families and 8000 parishioners."

Soren Johnson, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, confirms this growth. He says that Holy Martyrs of Vietnam has grown at a similar rate to the rest of the diocese, which over the last decade has increased its membership by 40 percent.

Bui is wearing a hound’s-tooth jacket with a burgundy sweater underneath and a soft, black beret atop his head. He is an elderly man who moves slowly at times, climbing up and down the stairs of the church. But he becomes visibly energized when interacting with his fellow churchgoers or discussing the plans they have for the future.

"[Our church] grew so fast over the last few years," he said. "Our first church was in Annandale but we outgrew it within six years." Now they have outgrown their current facility, located on Wakefield Street north of the Columbia Pike. "We’re hoping that if the lobby is larger [after the expansion] that when Christmas or Easter comes," Bui said, "[parishioners] will be able to stand outside the lobby and look in. [Currently] we have to show the mass on two screens: one in the lobby, one in the basement."

CATHOLICISM WAS INTRODUCED IN VIETNAM sometime in the 16th century by French Dominican and Jesuit missionaries. Over the next several hundred years it became popularized until, in the late 1700s and 1800s, the ruling Vietnamese kings repressed the practice of Catholicism by torturing and killing 300,000 of those who did not renounce their faith.

In what was a highpoint for the church as well as the worldwide Vietnamese Catholic community, 118 of these persecuted Catholics were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Despite the Vietnamese government’s refusal to allow its citizens to attend the event, 10,000 expatriates attended the canonization ceremony at the Vatican.

The church commemorates these martyrs, who provide its namesake, by staging a play that tells the story of a different martyr every year on Nov. 24 during the Feast of the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam.

When the French colonized Southeast Asia in the late 1800’s, Catholicism flourished in Vietnam. The first half of the 20th century saw the Vietnamese Catholic population continue to grow despite the country being invaded successively by Japanese, Chinese and Vichy French forces during this time.

After WWII, Vietnamese nationalist forces, led by Ho Chi Minh, fought a bloody and protracted war for independence with France. This ended in the Geneva Accords, which in 1954 split the country along the 17th parallel between the Minh-led North Vietnam and the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. One of the first acts of the newly-formed Minh government was to ban all religion, prompting a massive migration of approximately one million Catholics to the south.

Bui, whose family is from Hanoi in the north, was in France attending the French Naval Academy when the Geneva Accords divided his country. He was forced to return to South Vietnam and fight with the South Vietnamese army against his countrymen in the north.

He was estranged from his parents and his 10 siblings who were forced to flee from religious persecution. Bui discovered many years later that his father had died during the American bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

Luckily, amidst all this chaos and bloodshed, Bui survived. In 1973 he came to the United States to get his degree in education from American University. Shortly before he finished his coursework for his Ph.D., North Vietnamese forces invaded and conquered South Vietnam, uniting the country under communist rule.

Once again, while Bui studied in the West, his homeland was irreversibly altered by political forces beyond his control. This time, however, he knew he could never live there again.

His wife, Mai, and their three children settled down in northern Virginia. Shortly thereafter, the Bui’s were one of the founding families of the first Vietnamese Catholic church in the United States.

IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, the size of the church grew exponentially, as did the Vietnamese population in the Washington metro area, due to a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap near Harrisburg, Pa. that provided initial housing for more than 22,000 immigrants.

Bui said that in most cities that currently have a large Vietnamese population, "it has to do with the location of the refugee camps. California had Camp Pendleton. Here, we came from Indiantown Gap. And the people who are located in Texas came out of the camp at [Fort Chaffee in] Arkansas."

According to the 2000 Census, more than 37,000 people living in the Washington metro area were born in Vietnam, making them Washington’s 4th largest group of immigrants (El Salvadorans, Koreans and Indians are, respectively, the top three). However, Bui says that number may be up to 55,000 by now. The census also showed that Fairfax County’s Vietnamese population is the 8th largest for any county in the country.

Because of its historic nature, the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church serves Catholics from throughout the Washington, D.C. area. Bui said that "People from as far as Woodbridge, Manassas, Leesburg, Ashburn — they come here, too. We [even] have a few people from Maryland and D.C. They are not too many but they are willing to drive a long way because they like the activities and the services here."

Deacon Kien Pham says that, despite the church's unique qualities and expanding size, activities like the one that took place on Saturday are routine. "The life of the parish is very normal," he said, "[and] these activities are very normal."

Because of the church's popularity, it must now undergo a multimillion dollar expansion to keep up with its growing constituents. "We are still in the process of drawing the plans," said Bui. "We want to see if we can make it look better. Hopefully it will have a cost estimate [soon] so we can then get approval from the Arlington County Board sometime before summer. We are all crossing our fingers."

DESPITE THE POLITICAL TRAGEDIES that have beset his people throughout the 20th century, Bui is not a wandering soul. He has made his home in Arlington and here he is free to live his life and practice his faith as he sees fit. All three of his children graduated from the University of Virginia and he now has five grandchildren who are in their teens. He is an integral part of the thriving church that he and his family helped found and have endlessly dedicated their time to over the last 30 years.

Despite being exiled from his home twice, he considers himself incredibly fortunate and he attributes it all to faith. "I am so lucky," he said. "Everything I have is because I believe in God."