Pilgrimage to La Vang - A Dying Man's Last Journey
(Ha Long City, Vietnam)
Kien & Hiep at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Quang Tri, Vietnam
About 10 years ago, while walking through the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I came across an unusual statue of The Blessed Mother with the Christ Child. Having seen statues and shrines to her my entire life, this one was very different from the traditional images of Mary I was familiar with throughout my Catholic upbringing. It was a white porcelain figure dressed in some sort of Asian attire. I thought, ‘huh, that’s curious’. My longtime companion, herself a devoted Catholic from Vietnam, caught up with me and stopped to pray at the shrine. And then she said, ‘she’s so beautiful’. I asked what the deal was with her wearing traditional Asian clothes, I had never heard of that. She shook her head and mumbled, ‘you have so much to learn’. It’s Đức Mẹ La Vang, Our Lady of La Vang.
Spending time with Vietnamese Catholics over the years, I saw images and statues of Đức Mẹ La Vang often, yet never gave her much thought other than finding quite interesting that the Vietnamese has their own Marian apparition. I realized that the Blessed Virgin Mother is very well traveled and comforts Catholics around the world in all times. But I had no idea of her significance to the Vietnamese. What I learned subsequently is that Our Lady of La Vang is of supreme importance to Vietnamese Catholics, having served as an inspiration and source of comfort over the years of violent persecution and discrimination. This very website gives a good account of the story behind La Vang.
Vaguely aware of the Catholic migration to the south to escape violent reprisals in the 1950s, I found a flourishing community when I came to Saigon in 2008 on a volunteer mission. I stumbled across several Catholic churches and prayed daily for guidance at an elaborate grotto I happened upon. I marveled at the devotion the Vietnamese Catholics had for their faith. Much more so than the US or Europe, persecution and martyrdom is within living memory for them. I wanted to stay connected to the Catholic community in Vietnam when I settled here in 2009, and found the Cathedral in Hanoi, where I ended up working.
I met a number of Catholics whom all had family in the South, but they themselves tenaciously held onto their ancestral lands in the North, as guardians to their family burial plots and ancient villages. One such village outside Hanoi holds a very special place in the history of Catholicism in Vietnam. It is the final resting place of 13 martyrs who died for their faith, canonized as part of the “117 Martyrs of Annam” (Vietnam) Catholic saints in 1988.
This small nothing of a village, whose over-sized church is a French colonial era version of Notre Dame in Paris, was also known for its fierce protection against persecution in the last century, defending themselves with farm tools and swords against the attempted crucifixion of their parish priest. The man who led this defense had sons all of which he named after weapons. One of his sons, Kien – ‘Sword’ now in his 60s, is a man I have come to know and respect over the last 4 years. A simple farmer, Kien is a gentle and unassuming man, devout to his faith and loyal to his family.
In December 2014, Kien became sick and was brought to Hanoi to see a few doctors. The news was devastating. This kind, benevolent man who raised a wonderful family had terminal cancer of the esophagus and was expected to live at best, 6 months. Poor and with no insurance, I offered to help cover his steep medical bills, which would have ruined his family, still struggling to grasp the news and how to survive without him. However, It would cost as much as 50,000 usd, and it would likely only extend his life another 6 months at best. His family, trying to come to terms with the hard reality they faced, was at a loss.
Then, I came up with an idea. Rapid deterioration and death was inevitable, so rather than spend money to extend his life, which would likely only prolong his suffering, why not give him something to remember? I offered to bring him and his family to Central Vietnam to just relax and enjoy a part of the country they had never seen. They graciously accepted and in mid-February, 2015, we flew to Da Nang to visit a number of locations including Hue and Hoi An. One thing that had not occurred to me was how important it was for them to visit another nearby location: La Vang.
Being villagers with very little experience in cars or buses, they really hated being enclosed – on the bus ride from Da Nang to Hue (about 3 hours apart) they all got sick. Once in Hue, they once again expressed a strong desire to go to La Vang, another 1.5 hours to the north of Hue. I was taken aback that they preferred to go by motorbike. But early the next morning, we jumped on a few motorbikes and headed for the holiest place for Catholics in Vietnam.
Driving by innumerable cemeteries of war dead on the way, we finally arrived in La Vang and I was impressed with its breadth. A large expanse of land with a long, but modest entrance, lined with statues of Catholic saints and sculptures of scenes from Christ’s life. Pulling into the compound, the first thing that stood out was the old church tower, all that remained of the 1928 church which once stood prominently on the site. Unfortunately, being very near the DMZ, La Vang was nearly obliterated in 1972.
What moved me the most as we approached the site of the church steeple was that the site was still there at all. We discovered that behind the crumbling steeple was a long steel Quonset hut. We stepped inside and to my astonishment was a well-ordered church, with a modest, yet dignified altar and statues and other adornments commonly found in Catholic churches in other parts of the world. This simple edifice was erected on the foundation of the 1928 church and has served the Catholic pilgrims to this holy site for years. ‘What an amazing testament to the Vietnamese Catholics’ devotion!’ I thought as I sat in a pew, overwhelmed with emotion.
After spending moments deep in prayer, the family wandered the site. Directly behind the bombed out church we found something even more unexpected. Through the funding of devout Vietnamese Catholics around the world, a grand, new church is in progress. Due to open in 2016, this palatial edifice is certainly a statement of devotion for this holy site.
We then reverently approached the purported location of the 1798 apparition, to the left of the bombed-out church. It was a magnificent statue of our
Lady of La Vang and Christ child made of a number of colored types of stone and surrounded by towering concrete trees. We first came to the nearby drinking fountain which is reputed to hold holy water with healing properties. All the family members drank the water and filled a bottle with some of it. I was a bit more nervous, but took on faith that it was at least safe to drink, so I had a little.
We next moved directly to the statue whereby Kien and his wife, Hiep, knelt down and prayed for several minutes. Then one of their daughters, a delightful woman in her mid-twenties, took a series of photos of her parents adoring the Holy Mother. They reached to touch her feet and as I came closer to admire the craftsmanship, I felt the gravity of this location to these people. I noticed Kien had tears in his eyes as Hiep began frantically calling family members, breathlessly telling them they were at La Vang.
Behind the shrine was an equally impressive image. A 100 foot long golden colored Bas relief of the 117 Annam Martyrs served as the central backdrop to carved images of the 14 Stations of the Cross. We spent several more minutes admiring the imagery and praying on the site.
The battery for our only camera died, so I sought out a power source while the family wandered the site. I found an outlet in the Quonset hut church and stayed there to charge it for some time. I sat and contemplated the many things I have done in Vietnam and began to realize that this moment was one of the most important highlights of this simple, gentle family’s lives. I was happy to bring this moment to them, knowing that soon they would need all their strength to endure the upcoming agony.
While I knelt in the church, the family members wandered the compound, stopping to pray at the variety of statues in the garden in front of the active convent. When I felt the charge was enough to take photos to get through the remainder of the pilgrimage, I went out to look for them. Finding each family member deep in prayer at different grottoes, I quietly waited for them to gather and slowly walk back to our motorbikes. They had had a deeply religious experience for which they thanked me endlessly.
We returned to the North just in time for the Lunar New Year and went our separate ways. They to their village to tell of their adventures in the Central part of the country, and I to visit friends in different provinces around the north of Vietnam. I stopped by their home one day, just before returning to Ha Long City, (where I currently work) to find Kien’s condition had deteriorated. Though he struggled somewhat while on our pilgrimage, he was visibly in more pain now. Realizing it may be the last time we saw each other, he gave me a hearty handshake and thanked me over and over for giving him the time of his life.
The morning of March 3rd, 2015, 2.5 weeks after our pilgrimage to La Vang, Kien’s youngest daughter contacted me to say Kien’s condition had gotten far worse. In tears she said it will be very soon, maybe within days. He is suffering greatly and is unable to eat or even drink any longer. Helpless, all I can do is pray that this fine man who never hurt anyone and has lived his life in quiet devotion to his family and his god, will soon be relieved of his suffering and rejoin those who have gone before him.
God speed, gentlest of men. May God hold you in the palm of his hand.