Chattanooga’s Vietnamese faith community growing, with goal of becoming a parish
By Jim Wogan and Janice Fritz-Ryken
Established just four months ago, the St. Faustina Public Association of the Faithful, founded by Bishop Richard F. Stika for the Vietnamese Catholic community in the Chattanooga area, appears to be flourishing.
Bishop Stika celebrated Mass with nearly 240 attendees and offered the sacrament of baptism to two infants and a 93-year-old woman during his first official visit to the community at its current worship space in Notre Dame High School on Nov. 3.
“The bishop goes into a garden and he sees a little sprout, and he wants to nourish it, and then the sprout begins to grow. Soon it’s not a sprout but a tree. And now I see the growth of a tree here and so I have to respond,” Bishop Stika said during his homily.
Bishop Stika hopes someday to establish a parish for the Vietnamese community in Chattanooga. But before that, months, and perhaps years, of work will need to be done.
“Before we become a parish, I have to make sure you’re all committed to being a parish and that you continue to grow and get taller and taller so that the entire area around Chattanooga will see the new beginnings of a strong community,” said Bishop Stika, who established the St. Faustina Association in July.
Father Nick Tran, a Vietnam native, arrived in the Diocese of Knoxville earlier this year from the Archdiocese of Hartford and is chaplain and moderator for the community.
“We invited Bishop Stika to come to see our community on Sunday. Our people were very joyful, and they were so happy to see him,” Father Tran said. “Bishop Stika is their shepherd, and they were so thrilled and happy. People know the bishop cares about us and loves us.”
Mass attendance was 238, higher than the 180-200 people that Father Tran said usually attend Sunday Mass there.
The growth and exuberance of the St. Faustina Association has been evident since its start in July. An initial challenge was to find it adequate worship space.
The association started with Masses in the Notre Dame High School chapel, which isn’t large enough. Masses were then moved to the school auditorium, which can accommodate approximately 600 people. In November, Masses were temporarily moved to the school cafeteria while auditorium renovations took place.
Growing the association has taken hard work and a few road miles for Father Tran, who has driven to businesses around Chattanooga where many Vietnamese residents work. He spread word of the Vietnamese Masses at Notre Dame. He also collected information hoping it might lead to home visits.
“I go to their houses and nail salons and ask for people who are Catholic. We ride to their houses and where they work, and I invite them to come to Mass, so they are very happy to have a priest appear to their house,” Father Tran said.
“They are still active Catholics, but they don’t have a Vietnamese Mass, and they want to go to a Vietnamese Mass.”
Similar to Knoxville, which saw the 2014 establishment of Divine Mercy Parish for the Vietnamese community, growing the St. Faustina association into a Catholic mission and then a parish will take time.
“I reminded all the people that as they grow closer and closer to the possibility of becoming a parish, it is great to feel like you are an American, but don’t forget your past and the culture, the suffering of the Vietnamese people, the language, and to teach it for generations to come,” Bishop Stika said.
One of the necessities of a faithful Catholic faith community is the availability of the sacraments. Father Tran said the sacrament of reconciliation is well attended, and at least five baptisms have taken place since July.
Three of them occurred on Nov. 3, when Bishop Stika baptized two infants and Dao Thi Hoang, who speaks limited English and was born in Vietnam in 1926. At 93, she is the oldest person Bishop Stika has baptized.
“I see this thriving community. I see a lot of young people here and also many not as young,” Bishop Stika said in his homily.
“Today I have the privilege to baptize two very young people, and someone not quite as young. In fact, she’s a grandmother. I’m happy to do these sacraments for these members of the flock. This is a joy for me.”