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Shrine Sculpted From a Dream

Times Staff Writer

The ceremony began in late afternoon, the bright sun bringing squints to the eyes of those gathered before a marble statue depicting the Virgin Mary perched in one corner of the church courtyard.

The statue, draped by a white ankle-length cape, stood a few feet above a shallow basin where water trickled gently from among charcoal-colored rocks. Parishioners listened proudly as officials of St. Pius Catholic Church in Santa Fe Springs dedicated the shrine, praising the two years of sacrifice and determination that went into completing the project.

Then, with the sharp popping sounds of hundreds of exploding fireworks, the dedication took on a Vietnamese flavor. “The devil is afraid of the noise,” explained community leader Pham Minh Thanh. “And it is also a welcome.”

Since 1975, the 3,000-member church has helped relocate 54 Vietnamese families from Southeast Asia to Southeast Los Angeles. Now, the families have repaid the favor, scraping together $12,000 and donating hundreds of hours of work to create an elaborate shrine for the church.

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The Stuff of Dreams

For Thanh--who organized a celebratory outdoor Mass, designed the shrine and coordinated fund-raising for the project--Saturday’s ceremony was a dream come true.

“I’m so happy,” he said. “I think this is a miracle.”

After the dedication, Vietnamese clad in silken ao dais-- the traditional high-necked, long-sleeved, knee-length garments worn for special occasions--proceeded to the church parking lot where more than 1,000 waited for the Mass to begin.

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A sea of Asian, Latino and Anglo faces--reflecting the ethnically diverse parish--watched priests climb red-draped stairs to a stage set up as an altar. A choir of Vietnamese teen-agers sang in the church’s traditional Latin. Each prayer and reading from the gospel was delivered first in Vietnamese, then in Spanish, then in English.

After several years as a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese government during the war, Thanh and his family immigrated to the United States in 1975. St. Pius sponsored Thanh and other refugees, securing apartments and even jobs for some of them. The Catholic Church had been influential in Vietnam since the French colonized the country in the 16th Century. Thanh estimated that about 25% of Vietnam’s population is Catholic, and about 55% are Buddhist.

In gratitude for his family’s safe exit from Vietnam and the church’s assistance in building a new life in the United States, Thanh decided that the Vietnamese community should pay for a shrine to the Virgin Mary at St. Pius.

First Impressions

“At first, (the community) didn’t have faith in me,” said Thanh, who now works for McDonnell Douglas.

But he plodded ahead, collecting $10 here and $20 there from the 300 Vietnamese who live in Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs, Cerritos and Pico Rivera. He spent countless hours working on the shrine, painstakingly installing lights at the foot of the statue, water pumps for the fountain and bolting the lava rock boulders together with steel cables.

“In my country, each (Catholic) church has a big shrine like this,” he explained. “After Mass, or before, people come here and pray.”

The shrine bears Thanh’s touch. The Virgin Mary’s intricate cape took his father two weeks to embroider by hand. He picked out the statue’s golden crown and bought it from a local jeweler.

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The $12,000 that Thanh collected paid only for materials for the shrine. Members of the Vietnamese community contributed the labor to assemble it.

Priest’s Assessment

Father Ignacio Ugarte of St. Pius said non-Vietnamese parishioners “are kind of surprised that just 10% of the (church) community could do something so beautiful and so expensive. They admire the Vietnamese community very much.”

About half of St. Pius parishioners are Latino and about 40% are Anglo, Ugarte said. The cultural and lingual diversity of St. Pius was a bit of a shock for Ugarte. A native of Spain, Ugarte joined St. Pius about a year ago and had to become accustomed to weekly Masses conducted in Vietnamese.

“I am extremely surprised (the cultures) are mixing as well as they do,” said Ugarte, who is in the process of learning the Vietnamese language. “In some other places, there is friction and jealousy . . . we are lucky here.”


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