A late Saturday afternoon sunbeam danced in geometric patterns up and down the cobalt blue wind-furled veil, soon to be lowered to reveal Christ Cathedral Church in Garden Grove’s new next-door neighbor: a 12 foot statue of Our Lady of La Vang, the subject of veneration by millions of Vietnamese Catholics. 

The natural laser light show was an unexpected treat for the estimated 8,000-plus parishioners, bishops, priests, dignitaries, visitors, and other curious souls who packed into the cathedral’s plaza on July 17 for the new shrine’s solemn blessing. 

Over 8,000 visitors packed Christ Cathedral's campus to attend the dedication ceremony. (Steven Georges/RCBO via Diocese of Orange)

Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Christophe Pierre admitted later that he did not notice the shimmering display while he gave his remarks during the dedication. But given the history and mystique surrounding Our Lady of La Vang, he said that vision could fit in rather purposefully with the other faith-inspired liturgical dances, children’s drum lines, and adult choir tributes that preceded it.

“I am amazed how these immigrants who have suffered so much always find a way to show commitment and perseverance and transfer their faith to the next generations,” said Archbishop Pierre. “It is interesting how the Vietnamese have kept a cultural identity as well as a Catholic identity. That comes from the depth of their evangelization. It is as amazing as everything else we saw today.”

Archbishop Pierre’s participation on behalf of Pope Francis was an apt indicator of just how big a deal the day was for American Catholicism. The French prelate even ended his remarks with a line in Vietnamese, which drew rousing applause from the audience. 

Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Christophe Pierre praised Vietnamese immigrants for maintaining their cultural and Catholic identities. (Drew Kelley/RCBO via Diocese of Orange)

“I wanted to put out the idea that really the church respects all cultures and evangelization needs to go deep into the identity of the person,” he said.

Our Lady of La Vang has become a centerpiece of Catholic faith in Vietnam, comparable to how Mexicans venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She is said to have appeared before a group of seriously ill Catholics fleeing persecution in 1789, huddled in the remote rainforest of La Vang in Central Vietnam. As the community gathered at the foot of a tree to pray the rosary, she appeared and told them to boil leaves of the nearby trees for medicine. It worked, and the story was passed on for generations.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, which ended the Vietnam War, more than a million Vietnamese fled, many ending up in the United States. Our Lady’s intercession was again credited with protecting the lives of her devotees.

The dedication ceremony drew Vietnamese clergy, women religious, and families from around the U.S. (Joshua Sudock/RCBO via Diocese of Orange)

The ceremony at Christ Cathedral unveiled a new 12-foot Italian white marble statue of the Virgin Mary, wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai dress and khan dong hat, holding the baby Jesus. It came six years after the project originally started, and after several months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. .

It marks a pivotal moment not only for Southern California Vietnamese Catholics, but pilgrims from across the nation who anticipate traveling to see the statue. In becoming the site of the first major standalone shrine to the La Vang virgin in the United States, Christ Cathedral will become a gathering place for pilgrims and devotees.

The statue of Our Lady of La Vang depicts the Virgin Mary with a Eurasian face, holding the Baby Jesus and wearing a traditional Vietnamese áo dài dress and khăn đống hat. (Photo courtesy Diocese of Orange)

Just minutes away from the bustling Little Saigon area of Orange County, nearly 40% of Christ Cathedral’s 5,000 registered families are Vietnamese. Orange County has the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country, and more than 100,000 of them are Catholic. Along with those in Orange, the populations in Los Angeles and San Diego comprise nearly one-fourth of the country’s Vietnamese Americans. 

Vietnamese also make up a sizable percentage of new seminarians entering the priesthood in California. Their presence is felt in religious orders as well — at the dedication, the sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross congregations in Los Angeles and Nha Trang, Vietnam, were present along with Dominican sisters.

“This was a spectacular event for not [only] such a wonderful patroness of this community but, I think, a patroness we can all look up to,” said Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Marc Trudeau.

“Southern California benefits so much and is enriched so much by the wonderful Vietnamese culture, their community, and their faith. Our church is truly blessed to have all of them and I knew I would see a bunch of our Los Angeles community here as well today.”

The Our Lady of La Vang Shrine hosted nighttime performances on its Solemn Blessing Day, July 17, with various singers, including one who sang while nearby Angel Stadium hosted a fireworks show. (Steven Georges/RCBO via Diocese of Orange)

Sangeeta Teresa Mai, a Vietnamese American trained opera singer, performed a stirring rendition of “Ave Maria” while Archbishop Pierre sprinkled holy water and incensed the statue. She said that growing up in the Catholic faith with her mother’s side of the family has brought her “many special moments … This was an honor to share that song with all who came here from so many places to honor this beautiful new shrine we have in our city now. It’s incredible.”

Mai, an LA-based performer whose family lives in Orange County and attends Christ Cathedral, added: “I felt a divine spirit move through me that just allowed me to be a vessel. I felt I was connecting to La Vang today and it was very special.”

The Our Lady of La Vang Shrine contains a martyr wall with the names of 117 people. Each panel has the martyr’s name, date of death and how the person died. (Photo courtesy Diocese of Orange)

Orange County Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen said in his homily during the Mass that the celebration “is an historic day for all of us. Our hearts are filled with joy and gratitude as we welcome Our Lady of La Vang into our home.”

Bishop Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam in 1979 to escape religious persecution. They survived nearly 18 days at sea with no food or water, and when they made it to the U.S., Bishop Nguyen vowed to dedicate his life to the Lord. He is the second priest born in Vietnam to be made a bishop in the U.S. — the first was Bishop Domonic M. Luong, who also led the Diocese of Orange from 2003 until his retirement in 2015 just days before his death. 

Bishop Nguyen recalled the process of bringing the statue of Our Lady of La Vang to Christ Cathedral, a process that began before his installation in 2017. He shared the vision of the statue with Bishop Kevin Vann as a representation of hope, faith, and promise to Vietnamese everywhere.

The Our Lady of La Vang Shrine represents both the 1798 Marian apparition in Vietnam and honors the important contributions of the Vietnamese-Catholic diaspora in Orange County, which is home to the world’s largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Diocese of Orange)

The ceremony was held on the second anniversary of Christ Cathedral’s dedication. The property was originally built by televangelist Robert Schuller and known as the Crystal Cathedral, and was purchased by the Diocese of Orange in 2012. 

There is more to be done to finish the half-acre shrine, which includes a martyr wall honoring the 117 Catholics killed for their faith in Vietnam. Soon will come rosary gardens, a waterfall feature, and a medallion of basalt stone sourced from Vietnam near where the apparition occurred, which will go on the ground around the Our Lady of La Vang statue. A wall honoring some 5,000 donors around the country who contributed to the construction of the $12 million shrine is also included.

As large as the dedication ceremony was, Bishop Nguyen said that he expects more visitors soon. The first weekend of August is called the “Marian Days” by Vietnamese-American Catholics, and he anticipates 20,000 more will travel west to celebrate.

“I say 20,000 people will come because that’s our max capacity,” said Bishop Nguyen. “If we had more space, I’m sure even 50,000 people would come.”