CARTHAGE, Mo. -- About 60,000 Vietnamese Catholic pilgrims journeyed this weekend from every corner of the United States to this sleepy town in the green, rolling hills of the Ozarks for a festival honoring the Virgin Mary.
For four days, Carthage, usual population 11,000, was transformed into a center of Vietnamese culture and became the fourth largest city in Missouri.
The Marian Days have grown steadily over 21 years to become the central religious, social and cultural event for the country's Vietnamese Catholics.
They come to Carthage, in the state's southwestern corner, because it is the home of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, an order of Vietnamese priests and brothers who came to this country after fleeing Vietnam in fishing boats at the insistence of their founder, a day before South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975. About half the order, including its founder, the Rev. Dominic Mary Tran Dinh Thu, remains in Vietnam.
Why is there a monastery of Vietnamese priests and brothers in the Ozarks, hundreds of miles from any significant Vietnamese community? Because after the priests and brothers fled Vietnam and were scattered across the United States, they were invited by Cardinal Bernard Law, (now of Boston, then bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.) to take up residence in a vacant seminary in Carthage.
So for a few days, the tranquil monastic setting is transformed into a tent city, as most of the pilgrims camp on the grounds, erecting tarps to shield themselves from the summer sun, tying hammocks to trees and outfitting makeshift kitchens.
Time for reunions
"They come from east and west, all over the country, some from Canada," said Brother Francis Cuong, one of nearly 150 members of the order who live in Carthage and serve Vietnamese Catholics in parishes around the United States. "To me, it's amazing. Some come every year. They never skip. Some have come 19 or 20 times."
The weekend is filled with religious events, with Masses, conferences for youth, spiritual talks by the priests and processions with statues of the Virgin Mary carried on flower-covered platforms.
But for many, it's also a time to reunite with friends and family scattered throughout the country.
The weekend has the trappings of a family picnic, with the scent of Vietnamese cuisine wafting over the campsites. Volleyball games attract crowds, and Frisbees are flying everywhere.
For the increasingly Americanized youth, it's a chance to experience Vietnamese culture and for new friendships and romances to blossom. And there are, of course, a few complaints.
"It's tiring, dirty and hot," 16-year-old Thuy Nguyen of Arlington, Texas, said with a scowl. She was wearing a bright yellow traditional dress as she prepared for a dance performance. "And it's impossible to wash your hair."
For Carthage, the festival is an annual windfall.
"It's pretty impressive. All the hotels and motels are full," said Mayor Kenneth Johnson. "I'd say this month, our sales-tax revenue will probably double. Maybe more."
Clash with locals
Still, the influx of so many Vietnamese is a ready-made culture clash. There has been some grumbling, locals say, about long lines at the Consumer's supermarket, people walking on private property and increased traffic in the neighborhoods.
A few homeowners near the festival grounds stake off their property and ring it with twine, and put up signs saying "Private Property" and "Keep Out!"
"I'm surrounded. They're behind me and down there in the school lot and they're all over town," said George Huntley, a retired farmer who lives across the street from the monastery. "Basically, as many people as they are, its a pretty darned good group. I just want them to stay off my property."
But many residents allow camping on their yards, often to the same families year after year.
Seven years ago, Mary Allison, who lives across from the monastery, saw that Le Pham needed a place to change her baby's diaper and invited her to use her bathroom. The two women got to talking, as did their husbands, Gary Allison and Tuan Pham. The Carthage couple invited the family from Oklahoma City to use their yard the next year. Now, the Phams stay in the house, along with the dozens of relatives that come with them.
Saturday afternoon found children from the two families playing together on a trampoline in the yard, and everyone feasted on a picnic of Vietnamese delicacies and southern Missouri classics -- spring rolls and butterfly shrimp with a cheese-potato bake.
Over the years, the two families have become close. The Allison's children were in the wedding party in May of Tuan Pham's sister. The Allisons will spend their Thanksgiving with the Phams in Oklahoma City.
"They're like family to us now," said Gary Allison, 44, who is a munitions manufacturing supervisor. "And they treat us like family. Tuan, he's like my long-lost brother."
Occasionally, old friends who parted in Vietnam years ago bump into each other. Anh Ngo, who came from Beloit, Wis., with his wife, two children and his mother-in-law, found an old friend here from Saigon whom he hadn't seen since Ngo left Vietnam 15 years ago.
"I had to look at him for 15 or 20 minutes before I was sure it was him," Ngo said.
Although there is an atmosphere of a large outdoor party, the brothers and priests try to keep the festivities within certain bounds. There are posted regulations prohibiting alcohol and gambling, heavy metal music and indecent dress. Many sip cans of beer as they sit in the shade, and there are enthusiastic card games at many tents, with money changing hands.
"Those are just rules," Brother Francis Cuong said. "If we see [alcohol] we just ignore it. If it's really bad, we stop it. We say, 'No gambling,' but if it's just for fun, we pretend like we don't see it. But if we see indecency, like in dress or music, we do stop that right away."
The priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix decided to hold the first Marian Days in 1978 to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and as a gathering for the few Vietnamese Catholics in Carthage and surrounding communities. About 1,500 people attended.
"They liked the idea of gathering the Vietnamese people here," Brother Cuong said. "They asked us to repeat it the next year, so we did."
Word got out, and attendance steadily increased: from 2,500 the second year to 8,500 the fifth year to 30,000 the ninth year. Last year, 50,000 came, and more made the journey this year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the appearance of Mary in La Vang, Vietnam, to a group of Catholics who had fled to a forest to escape persecution.
To mark that event in Vietnam, Catholics will be converging on La Vang. About 120,000 are expected this week in the village 300 miles south of Hanoi.
In Carthage, for the priests and brothers, it's all a bit overwhelming.
"It's hard for us. We don't have enough members," Cuong said. So after the first few years of the festival, "We asked Bishop Law if we could close it down. No more Marian Days. But he said, 'No, this is a good opportunity for the Vietnamese people to praise God and adore him.' So he asked us not to close it down. And we obeyed."
'A kind of loneliness'
For some of the younger brothers in particular, after the work to prepare for the gathering, the festival is followed by a letdown.
"On Sunday afternoon, everything is back to normal. Everybody is gone and we have to clean up everything. And all the friends we just met, they're gone," Cuong said. "For some of the brothers, we feel a kind of loneliness, a void in our soul.
"Some of the immature brothers will collapse and they'll think this is not the life for them and they'll ask to leave," he said. The order seems to lose a couple of brothers every year after the Marian Days.
But after the celebrations, Carthage quickly gets back to its routine. Although tens of thousands of people camping on fields around the monastery generate a lot of trash, it will be gone hours after everyone has left.
"Come Monday morning," the mayor said, "you can't tell there's been anybody there, hardly."
Pub Date: 8/10/98