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Christ Cathedral unveiling $12.6-million shrine in honor of Vietnamese Catholic community

Members of the media capture pictures and video of a new shrine depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.
Members of the media capture pictures and video of a new shrine depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus during a preview on Wednesday at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Fearing for their lives, persecuted Catholics fled into the La Vang rainforest in Vietnam seeking refuge from a tyrannical emperor in 1798. They gathered each night at the base of a tree to pray the Rosary while hiding in the jungle.

Then one night at the tree, they believed they saw an apparition — Mary holding Baby Jesus. The vision has become a powerful symbol.

While the reported event took place more than 200 years ago, the tradition of Our Lady of La Vang is deeply entrenched in the Vietnamese Catholic community to this day.

“Our Lady of La Vang continues to journey with her people, through the war, and then through the boat people leaving Vietnam,” said Father Thanh Nguyen, an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange and the only Vietnamese bishop in the U.S. “A lot of them settled here in Orange County, and they desire to have a place to honor Mary, and to thank her, and also [ask] her to join with them in the days ahead.”

Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove is unveiling a $12.6-million shrine this weekend in honor of Our Lady of La Vang, which was made possible through more than 5,000 donors. An additional $1 million was raised that will be earmarked for the maintenance of the installation. The shrine honors the traditions of the Vietnamese community, an important part of the church and surrounding community. An estimated 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in Orange County.

Christ Cathedral will be unveiling a shrine that serves as a testament to the journey of the Vietnamese American people.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The complex shrine has been in the works for about six years. Its centerpiece is a 12-foot-tall statue of Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, representing the apparition that the persecuted Catholics said they saw in the rainforest. The statue was sculpted out of white marble from Carrara, Italy. It took about one and a half years to complete.

Above the statue is a canopy-like structure that looks like an “alpha” symbol. The “alpha” and “omega” are important symbols in Catholicism conveying that God is in everything. The three poles that hold up the structure are meant to look like banyan trees, which stood behind the apparition of Mary.

The shrine also includes a wall with the names of 117 martyred saints. The cause of death is listed under each name.

St. Melchor García Sampedro Xuyên had his limbs hacked off before being decapitated. St. Clemente Ignacio Delgaho Y was tortured and starved to death in prison.

“They believe that the blessing that they have received comes from God, but through Mary’s intercession,” Nguyen said of the Vietnamese Catholic community, mentioning that he was one of the “boat people” who fled Vietnam after the war.

A reporter views the martyr wall at the new shrine at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Nguyen said Christ Cathedral holds services for the Vietnamese and Hispanic communities of Orange County. He said about 2,000 attend the four weekend masses held for each community.

Nguyen said the statue is particularly unique in Orange County, though Our Lady of La Vang church in Santa Ana has a smaller shrine, Nguyen said.

Anna Zhang, senior project manager with Gray Construction, the contractor of the shrine, said that the biggest challenge in building the shrine was the months-long delay forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Most Rev. Kevin Vann, Bishop of the Diocese of Orange, left, and auxiliary bishop Timothy Freyer, right, at the shrine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Zhang said construction took almost two years. The complex geometry and heft of the shrine demanded about three months of planning.

“I know the shrine is an homage to the Vietnamese community...so that has significant meaning to us, as well as being on this beautiful campus surrounded by world-renowned architecture,” Zhang said.

Zhang said the shrine isn’t finished yet. There’s currently a temporary wooden floor underneath the statue that will be replaced with stone to be imported from an area in Vietnam near where the apparition occurred. They will also add trees and a water feature in front of the martyr wall and a prayer garden at the back of the shrine.

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