BRIDGEPORT—Hundreds of faithful filled the pews at St. Augustine’s Cathedral on Sunday as Bishop Frank J. Caggiano officially recognized the Vietnamese Catholic Community as a parish during a Mass celebrating the Vietnamese New Year.
The bishop signed the decrees that formally established the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish within the Cathedral Parish, 25 years after the first families came to Bridgeport and began to worship as a community.
Several hundred children and young people joined their parents and grandparents for the solemn and festive occasion. It was a time of prayer, celebration, thanksgiving and most importantly, a time to venerate their ancestors for the sacrifices they made.
“This New Year, I stand before you with great gratitude for your faith, your life, your enthusiasm, your generosity and your faithfulness in the diocese,” Bishop Caggiano said. “For 25 years, our community has been a leaven of joy and faith here at the Cathedral Parish, as well as in the diocese, and I want to recognize that and thank you for your witness.”
Canon Law allows the establishment of so-called “personal quasi-parishes” by “reason of the rite, language or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory.”
“As we begin this new year, I also want to invite you to start the next new chapter for our Vietnamese community,” he said. “Today I would like to sign decrees into law creating the Vietnamese community as its own parish within the family of the Cathedral. It will allow us to plan your future together, to give you more of an opportunity so that we might grow ever bigger, meet the needs of our young people more effectively, and invite many others to come join us and know Jesus through the example that you and I will give.”
Bishop Frank entrusted the new parish to the Vietnamese martyrs, who include St. Jean-Theophane Venard, St. Andrew Dung-Lac and 115 others canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
The bishop thanked Father Augustine Nguyen, the Episcopal Vicar for Vietnamese Catholics, for all that he has done, and he named Father Philip Lanh Phan, who is chaplain at Kolbe Cathedral High School, as administrator of the new parish to handle the day-to-day responsibilities.
Father Augustine, who was ordained in 2012, was the first Vietnamese priest in the diocese, so it was a particularly meaningful occasion for him. Shortly after he was ordained, he began to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral for the Vietnamese.
“This is great step for us,” he said. “Our numbers are growing, and the community is very active.” He will continue to serve as episcopal vicar, along with his duties as chaplain at Western Connecticut State University while in residence at St. Joseph Church in Danbury.
In his homily, Bishop Caggiano recalled the witness of the Vietnamese martyrs and wished blessings and graces on the Vietnamese faithful for their families and loved ones in the New Year.
“In these days, we remember the martyrs who gave their lives for Jesus—they gave their lives because they knew in their hearts how much Christ loved them, and they did not hesitate to give everything back to the one who gave love in return,” Bishop Caggiano said. “We also remember our deceased, our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors and friends. We stand on their shoulders. We came to faith because of them. Think of all the sacrifices they made. Think of all they did so that we might have a better life and have faith in Jesus. And they did it not because it was an obligation but because they knew in their hearts that Jesus truly loved them and would take care of them, even in their hours of the greatest sacrifices.”
He challenged the community to go out into a world that does not recognize the call of Christ as the Apostles did and to continue the invitation he made 2000 years ago, “Follow me.”
“My prayer is that the love you have in your hearts will grow, for that’s the only way we will bring the world to Jesus,” he said. “It is the only way we will show the world a better way. It is the only way we will teach the world to follow Jesus…if you and I are ready to follow him first. May this New Year help us to do that one day at a time.”
In his remarks, Father Phan thanked the bishop, priests, deacons and seminarians who participated in the Mass, along with the Cathedral pastor, Father Michael Novajosky, who has been supportive of the community.
Father Phan, who was ordained ten years ago, said, “I was born in a pagan tradition. Sixteen years ago, I broke with my family tradition and became Catholic. Christ is my hope. I don’t wish for success, but I wish to be faithful. Thank you, bishop, for all your support.”
He asked for the community’s support and said they would grow in faith together. Discussing his vision for the future, he later said, “Being assigned as head of the newly created Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, I feel humbled and excited at the same time. The community has always been strong and vibrant in the past 25 years, but as it has now become an independent parish, I would like the community to be more involved with the general works of the diocese, such as charitable work at soup kitchen and visits to the home-bound elderly, regardless of ethnic background.”
He also said he is committed to attracting more Vietnamese to the parish and growing the youth group by encouraging its involvement in liturgies and parish activities.
Vy “Vee” Nguyen, president of the local chapter of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, said, “We’re very excited today. The community has been here 25 years, and this is an important recognition.”
Vee, who was born in Vietnam, said the ministry’s goal is to teach youths to be good Catholics and virtuous people and to recognize their cultural heritage. During the Mass, several hundred young people sat in the front pews, recognizable by the neckerchiefs they wore, which had an image of the Blessed Sacrament and a chalice.
Cindy Nguyen of Trumbull, who belongs to the Catholic mothers’ prayer group, “Cac Ba Me Cong Giao,” talked about the activities of her fellowship, which meets for prayer on the third Sunday of the month. She moved here from California in 1994 and has been part of the faith community since the early years.
“Yet Nguyen Dan” or simply “Tet” is the largest and most important festival of the Vietnamese culture. It means “the first morning of the first day” and the observance can continue for the entire week, although in America it is typically a one-day event.
A central activity of Tet is the New Year Rite of Ancestral Veneration. Family members pray for their ancestors and offer thanksgiving for their heritage. It is a time for children to honor their parents for sacrifices they have made on their behalf.
As part of the celebration, eight couples were recognized for their wedding anniversaries, from ten to 55 years. They came forward and received a certificate of a papal blessing. Bishop Caggiano also blessed them and was photographed with their families. After the Mass, there were festivities and a luncheon in the gymnasium of Kolbe Cathedral High School.
Father Augustine said the parishioners come from throughout the state and as far away as New York.
“Every week we come together and attendance is from 300 to 400 people,” he said.
There are two Masses, on Friday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm. The parish’s ministries include Vietnamese language programs for children and a youth group that meets before Mass. Half of the members of community are young people, he said.
The parish is assisted by five Vietnamese Sisters, who belong to the Lovers of the Holy Cross religious congregation, founded in Vietnam in 1670. The Sisters oversee the choir, language programs and preparation for the sacraments. In addition, there is an active RCIA program, and every Easter Vigil several catechumens enter the faith.
Many changes have occurred in the 25 years since the first families began worshipping in Bridgeport. Back then, priests would come from as far away as Springfield and Boston to celebrate Mass once a month and later once a week.
“This is our next great step,” Father Augustine said.
By Joe Pisani