Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
August 18th, 2005


Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu 2005

I wrote eons ago that I’d post some pictures and details from Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu, the huge gathering of Vietnamese Catholics from all over North America. And it was huge: around 70,000 people showed up, with tents, megatents, and even RVs.

Since it was primarily a religious pilgramage, our first order of business was attending a prayer service in the small chapel. This was where it became painfully obvious that, even though I can now write in Vietnamese somewhat intelligibly, I’m still a newbie when it comes to speaking – or in this case, chanting – in Vietnamese.

It’s pretty neat participating in a Vietnamese Mass. There are still many throwbacks to the days before Vatican II: the entire Mass is chanted and sung, not spoken; bells and incense are still used at every Mass; and in some congregations, everyone still receives Communion on the tongue. It’s also neat to feel so tall: most of the adults there were much shorter than I am.

I’m still puzzled as to how they fit so many people in the small chapel at any given time. No ushers, either.

The last time my family went to Carthage was when I was still in diapers, and before my little brother was born. Since my brother and I were now old enough to remember this experience, and since this was the last chance I could go before college, my parents decided to take us to Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu at the last minute.

Our relatives from Texas, who attend annually, thought that we were joking when we called them one night and told them we were attending. It didn’t help that we could call them, but they could never call us, since our cell phone reception was so bad in Southern Missouri. We met up with them a few hours later, much to their surprise. I met Trí again, but I was disappointed that some of my older cousins – Yến and Quang particularly – couldn’t make it.

Also among the people who also attended: the priest who wedded my parents, and one of the girls who sold us some Cutco knives. She was in the choir from Cincinnati, which achieved a short moment of fame when they sang for one of the evening Masses.

One of the tents we ate at, Quán ăn Thượng Du, was from the archdiocese Hưng Hóa in Vietnam. All proceeds apparently went to charity.

This event wasn’t a completely religious affair: there was food. A number of huge tent eateries – lều ăn – were set up to house full-fledged, full-service restaurants. You know, with waiters, tablecloths, music, wooden chopsticks, flower vases, and… plastic soup spoons.

Most of these tents specialized in one or two Vietnamese delicacies. The one from Port Arthur, Texas, specialized in seafood. On the other hand, the one from Hưng Hóa in Vietnam, was known more for their bánh cuốn – sheet noodles made from rice, topped with giò (Vietnamese luncheon-meat ham), fried onions, and nước mắm (fish sauce). And of course, there were some tents devoted to serving phở, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup.

Before I get all cooked up about food, though, I should tell you some more about the Mass – it was a pilgramage, after all. The number of people who attended each Mass was astounding: the picture below shows the main staging area for Mass after people had started leaving. Even during Mass, you would have only been able to see less than a third of the churchgoers from this spot. Additionally, many people had already left the night before, so that they could make it home by Sunday night. Many, many more people showed up for Mass the previous night.

Serving Communion for this many people would have even been a logistical nightmare in a football stadium, with all its aisles and walkways. But somehow they managed to serve all these people in probably less time than it takes my parish to serve our measly 900 or so at 9:45 Mass. That would’ve been due to the sheer number of priests serving Mass each night. I wasn’t ever able to get a good photo of the multitude of priests, but you get some idea with this photo from the host’s website.

As the priests streamed out of the little chapel at the beginning of each Mass, I couldn’t help but think of the Spirit Day Masses at St. X, when the freshman stream into the football stadium. The priests were always followed by a sort of ark that contained relics from the 117 officially canonized Vietnamese martyrs. (Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese became martyrs, in fact.)

Somehow, the throngs of pilgrams that converged on the little town of Carthage, Missouri also managed to clean up after themselves quite well.

Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu was truly a fishes-and-loaves moment. For three nights in a row. If ever you thought the Catholic Church was having difficulties these days, this event proved you wrong three times over. Even though I didn’t attend the well-attended talk on vocations that they offered one afternoon, the experience really inspired me.

I’m not sure what I’m taking away from this trip quite yet. But if anything would, Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu garnered my utmost respect for my faith, just by seeing how so many people manage to make religion the centerpiece of their lives for more than one hour on a Sunday.

I’m not certain yet that I’ll be able to make it to Đại Hội Thánh Mẫu next year, but in case I make it, my father has already made plans for us to volunteer at the tent from Hưng Hóa, Vietnam.


  1. Last weekend my family and I spent some time in Carthage, Missouri. On most vacations I go on, we spend a lot of time on the road, so I usually find some roadside points of interest to blog about after I return home. This trip was no different.

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