Renaming California parish for Vietnamese saint sparks controversy

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2003

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) The ground has been blessed but remains unbroken.

Construction of a multimillion-dollar Roman Catholic church named for Vietnam's patron saint has been delayed indefinitely because of a dispute over who should be pastor of a congregation that is now mostly Hispanic.

Bishop Todd Brown of the Diocese of Orange wants to replace the parish's current pastor with a priest of Vietnamese descent. The parishioners want the current pastor to stay.

The dispute underscores a deeper tension for the Catholic Church in 21st century America as it attempts to accommodate its increasingly diverse flock.

''The only reason the Catholic Church in the U.S. is still growing is because of immigration,'' said Michael Foley, a professor of political science at Catholic University who studies religion and immigration. ''There's a very clear teaching now that the various cultural expressions have to be respected if possible.''

The Diocese of Orange wants to replace Our Lady of Lourdes, a tiny, crowded church built in the 1920s for Mexican farmworkers, with Our Lady of Lavang, a parish with a name acknowledging Orange County's large Vietnamese-American community.


Pastor Bill Barman gives a Spanish-language Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sept. 7, 2003, in Santa Ana, Calif. The Catholic Diocese of Orange County faces challenges in bringing together its Increasingly Asian and Hispanic populations.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The new parish was supposed to be an example of the church's effort to bring together the two cultures. Now it has become an example of the difficulties in doing so.

''We had become excited about the new church,'' said parishioner Oselia Maldonado, who worked over the last two years to prepare for the move.

''Now contributions are down,'' she said, her voice shaking. ''People's hopes are down.''

The plan began in 2001, when Brown offered more than $6 million to construct a church for the overflowing parish, which crams 300 Sunday school students at outdoor picnic tables because it lacks classrooms.

Parishioners at first adamantly resisted the church's new name and the idea of opening it up to the Vietnamese, but their trusted pastor, the Rev. Bill Barman, convinced them that the change would be good.

''Father Bill explained that the Virgin Mary is the same everywhere,'' Maldonado said.

Our Lady of Lavang, according to Catholic teaching, was a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared at the end of the 18th century to persecuted Vietnamese Catholics. She is as important to that community as Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexican culture.

Then Brown announced he wanted a Vietnamese priest to head the new parish instead of Barman, who is white.

Barman refused to step down and Brown halted construction, saying he will not give the go-ahead until he can make the appointment.

Now parishioners fear they will get lost in the new church.

''With a Vietnamese priest, and a Vietnamese name, maybe they won't understand us. They won't listen to us,'' said Maria Chavez, who has attended Our Lady of Lourdes for 27 years. ''Father Bill understands us.''

The diocese acknowledges the difficulty in ministering to its diverse community. But Brown said, ''We are committed to addressing the needs of all the people,'' which is why he says the diocese needs a Vietnamese-named church with a pastor of Vietnamese descent.

Barman says he is being targeted because he is ''the wrong race.'' He is fluent in Spanish and has visited Vietnam but speaks little of the language. He says he has worked too hard for the new parish to step down now.

''What would I look like if one month before the move I say, 'Sorry, I'm leaving?''' he said.

The bishop called Barman a fine priest but said he lacks experience with the Vietnamese culture. Brown has not said who he will select to replace Barman.

Many in the Vietnamese community say the new church is overdue acknowledgment and see naming a native-speaker pastor as a part of that recognition. The diocese recently named the country's first Vietnamese bishop, Dominic Luong. He serves as an auxiliary to Brown.

''The Lady of Lavang was seen at a time when our country was in despair,'' said Hien Nguyen, 26, of Anaheim. ''Naming a church for her is like honoring our suffering. Maybe people who go there will learn more about our history.''

Experts say language is the biggest barrier to bringing together the different ethnic communities within the church. Like dioceses in such areas as Raleigh-Durham, N.C., New Orleans, Chicago, and many parts of the West, Orange County often must respond to the needs of three or more language groups in one church.

About a third of those who attend Mass in the diocese are Spanish speakers and about 11 percent Vietnamese speakers. The rest are predominantly white, though there are increasing numbers of Filipinos and other Asian-Americans.

''Language matters not so much for the sake of prayer, but for the sake of preserving of one's culture,'' Foley said.

There are also concerns about economic disparity. Although Hispanics have a long history in the area, there are many recent poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Many in the local Vietnamese community settled here after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They were Catholics who had served in government or worked in business and have developed an economically thriving community.

''If (the Vietnamese) give more money, the preferences will be for them,'' Chavez said.

Despite the controversy, Brown says the new church will be built. But that may not happen until 2007, when Barman's commitment to the parish expires.

''Change is difficult,'' Brown said. ''But we're going to go ahead. I look forward to the groundbreaking at some future date.''

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