Knoxville’s Vietnamese community welcomes both the Lunar New Year and Bishop Stika
By Bill Brewer
Dragons, tigers, and Xoi, oh my! No, it wasn’t Oz; it was better. You might even say it was heavenly.
The Church of Divine Mercy offered a cornucopia for the soul and senses on Jan. 30 as members of the Knoxville Vietnamese community celebrated Mass to welcome the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, which in 2022 is the Year of the Tiger.
Divine Mercy members and their priest, Father Dominic Nghia Nguyen, CRM, invited Bishop Richard F. Stika to join in their celebration and serve as celebrant of the Jan. 30 Mass. Deacon Joseph Hieu Vinh served as deacon of the Word and Eucharist.
A standing-room-only group of more than 250 parishioners greeted Bishop Stika, who shared with them the joy he receives by visiting Divine Mercy. And as the bishop entered the West Knoxville church, he was met by long table after long table covered in Vietnamese delicacies like the Xoi rice, chicken, beef, and hot soup that would be served for a celebratory dinner after Mass. No one left hungry.
Many parishioners were dressed in colorful attire representative of their native Vietnam, and Bishop Stika acknowledged the significance of the celebration.
“It is so good to be with all of you. It has been a while since I’ve been to Divine Mercy, one of my favorite parishes to visit. As I’ve said many times, I have a deep love and affection for the Vietnamese people and for all of the people here at Divine Mercy. It is good to be with you all,” Bishop Stika said at the beginning of Mass.
As Bishop Stika began his homily in English, he asked Father Nguyen to translate it into Vietnamese. But that didn’t mean the bishop wouldn’t be speaking Vietnamese.
“When I come to this parish, one of the beautiful things I see is so many young people. And I know the importance in the Vietnamese culture of families. And I think it’s important for those who have been around a bit longer to remind the young people of the journey that eventually led to this church,” Bishop Stika said. “A journey that started a number of years ago when the Vietnamese community only gathered one Sunday a month at Immaculate Conception Church. It’s a journey that eventually led the parish to have a Vietnamese deacon and eventually led it to Knoxville Catholic High School, and now to your home here.”
The bishop also spoke of the struggles older Vietnamese members faced in their native country.
“It all comes down to the idea of divine mercy. And so what’s the motto? Jesus, I trust in you. I can see that this is true in your community and in your families. And as long as you make that your main theme of life, to trust in Jesus, this parish and its traditions will continue to grow, and you, yourself, will continue to grow because you are never alone,” Bishop Stika continued. “Now, as your community celebrates a new year, the Year of the Tiger, it’s just a reminder to recommit yourselves to what the Gospel tells us today: You cannot serve God and man. I’m reminded of the late great Bishop (François-Xavier Nguyen) Van Thuan, who I actually had lunch with in Rome. How he, daily in his life, trusted in Jesus. Even in those moments when he was completely alone, he was never alone because he always knew he was with Jesus and Jesus was with him.”
Bishop Van Thuan was ordained a priest in June 1953. He was appointed bishop of Nha Trang, South Vietnam, in April 1967. In April 1975 he was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Saigon in South Vietnam, then six days later Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army. He was held in confinement for 13 years, nine years in solitary confinement, because of his faith and his family connections. He was a nephew of South Vietnam’s first president. In November 1988, he was released by the communist government, and in 1991 he was allowed to visit Rome but not to return to Vietnam. He died of cancer in Rome on Sept. 16, 2002, at the age of 74. And on May 4, 2017, he was named venerable by Pope Francis as his cause for sainthood began.
“As you begin this new year, maybe it’s a good opportunity to once again make a commitment to always remind yourself that Jesus is with you, and that Jesus invites each and every one of you to allow yourselves to be one with Him. Do so with the strength of a tiger, just don’t bite anybody,” the bishop advised. “Once again, it’s a joy to be with you to celebrate this special day on your calendar. And always remember to pray, Jesus, we trust in you.”
Divine Mercy’s dozen-member choir led the music liturgy in Vietnamese for the Mass as youth in the parish took part as altar servers and gift-bearers.
The beginning of Divine Mercy Parish goes back to the early 1990s, when an idea for a Vietnamese Catholic community in the Knoxville area was first spoken. As Bishop Stika reminded the Jan. 30 congregation, their community got underway with a monthly Mass at Immaculate Conception before moving to Knoxville Catholic High School. Then in 2012, Bishop Stika announced to the community that it had its first permanent priest, Father Hoan Dinh, and a name: Divine Mercy Catholic Mission, with plans to relocate to their own place of worship.
Mass times were increased from twice a month to each Sunday, with daily Masses on Tuesday and Wednesday. By this time, the community had grown from about 35 members to about 400, or some 150 families.
On Nov. 17, 2013, Bishop Stika dedicated the Church of Divine Mercy, which is located at 10919 Carmichael Road, not far from the intersection of Lovell Road and Pellissippi Parkway. Father Nguyen has served as parochial administrator of Divine Mercy since June 2019. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 6, 2009.
At the end of Mass, longtime Divine Mercy parishioner Jonny Pham, representing the parish, welcomed Bishop Stika and thanked him for celebrating Mass on such an important day for the Vietnamese community. He also welcomed several Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., who attended Mass.
“Dear Bishop Stika and the Sisters of Mercy, on behalf of the staff and Church of Divine Mercy Parish, we want to take this opportunity to say thank you and welcome you to our Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration Mass. It is a great blessing to have all of you here with us today,” Mr. Pham said. “Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet in our language, is the most important annual celebration in Vietnam, with both cultural and historical significance. It is a celebration that brings the whole family together. It is a time for food, festivities, and most importantly, family and friends.”
“It’s a time for new beginnings. It’s a time for a fresh start. It’s a time to make some resolutions. It’s a time to forget the past and celebrate a new start,” Mr. Pham continued. “Grace and peace to you from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Happy New Year to all the members of our congregation, church staff, and all of you visiting with us today. We are so thrilled that you have chosen to wake up early and rejoice in this new year of life with us at the Church of Divine Mercy. … The Year of the Tiger.”
Mr. Pham explained to Bishop Stika that a Vietnamese tradition at New Year’s is giving gifts, and he invited the shepherd of the Diocese of Knoxville to accept a small gift as luck and success for the coming year.
Several Divine Mercy youth presented the bishop and Father Nguyen with flowers, and then the bishop and priest were asked to pick a small scroll from a basket with a New Year’s wish written on it.
Bishop Stika selected a scroll and then read it aloud. “It’s from the Gospel of St. Matthew: ‘You are the light of the world.’”
The bishop then read the scroll in Vietnamese, which drew a round of applause. As he ended Mass, the bishop told the congregation, “I’m happy to be here. And remember, we’re all the light of the world.”
Myhien Bui, who has been a member of the Church of Divine Mercy for nine years and attends with her mother, remarked how the Vietnamese Catholic community is growing significantly in East Tennessee. She pointed out how a similar community is organizing in Chattanooga and hopes to form a Diocese of Knoxville church there. And she said there is a significant number of Vietnamese Catholics in the Morristown area.
“I think it’s amazing. I moved here from Minnesota, and I’m thrilled my children can learn the faith, the culture, and the traditions,” Ms. Bui said.
She shared Bishop Stika’s positive impression based on the number of children in the community and the overall growth, especially in the face of the COVID pandemic.
And as if the Vietnamese community’s New Year’s celebration wasn’t divinely inspired enough, the Year of the Tiger got off to an unexpectedly strong start when the Cincinnati Bengals caught the professional football world off guard by unexpectedly winning their way to the Super Bowl.