By Larry Urish     8/3/2020

In the late 18th century, persecuted Vietnamese Catholics who had been driven from their homes into a nearby rainforest were comforted by the appearance of a Marian apparition that became known as Our Lady of La Vang. More than two centuries later, many of their descendants here in Orange County – the world’s largest population of Vietnamese people outside of their homeland, and themselves no strangers to persecution – spearheaded a project that will forever express gratitude for Our Lady and the hope, strength and love she’s given Vietnamese Catholics near and far. 

Slated for dedication next year, the beautifully crafted Our Lady of La Vang Shrine will serve as a place to honor the key role Mother Mary has played in the lives of so many. 

In 1798, concerned with the growth of Catholicism, Vietnam’s emperor announced anti-Catholic decrees and began a rule of persecution. A group of Vietnamese that had fled into the La Vang forest became gravely ill and prayed the Rosary at the base of a tree. The vision of a woman holding an infant child appeared from above in the branches. Later deemed to be a vision of the Virgin Mary, she provided comfort and instructed the people to boil leaves from the surrounding trees to create a medicine that eventually cured them all.  

Mary provided the same comfort in the 1970s, when thousands of Vietnamese refugees who’d fled their country found themselves in dire circumstances. The story of Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen is but one account. “We escaped Vietnam in 1979,” he says. “Twenty-six of us spent eighteen days aboard a small boat, only twenty-six by six feet. The first four days at sea, a tropical storm tossed out much of our food and water. On the eighth day, we ran out of what was left of our food.” 

He and his fellow refugees never lost faith, however. “Even when things looked very bad, we still prayed morning and evening, including the Rosary,” Bishop Nguyen says. “I believe that Mary’s intercession was a gift from heaven. And every time it rained, every person got a cup of water.” 

The statue depicting Our Lady of La Vang holding the infant Jesus is a sight to behold. Carved from a solid block of white marble extracted from a quarry in Carrara, Italy, the 16-foot-tall figure will stand atop a 2-foot-high platform of white marble sculpted in the shape of a cloud. 

As project manager of the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine Committee, Dr. Elysabeth Nguyen traveled to Carrara, known for its world-class marble, three times to communicate with the artisans who carved the shrine’s statue, ensuring that the Diocese’s chosen design became a reality.  

“The process of creating the statue took a year and a half,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Six months were spent on the design phase, and the actual carving took a year. … The artisans are two brothers from a family that has been sculpting marble for five generations. They selected a huge chunk of white marble, about the size of four large refrigerators. Many statues are composites, but Our Lady is made from one solid block. They did an amazing job.” 

Set to be located in the Marian Court, at the northeast corner of Cathedral Plaza, the shrine will consist of the statue set below an Alpha-shaped, ribbon-like canopy of steel panels under a glass-paned roof. Its design blends Vietnamese culture with Christ Cathedral’s modern architectural style. 

“The shrine was designed to be experienced from a variety of angles, not seen from just one point of view,” Dr. Nguyen says. “The Rosary Garden behind the shrine will provide little niches, private places where you can slow down, meditate and talk to God through His mother.” 

Thus far, $12.1 million has been pledged for the shrine, the majority of which has been collected by the Orange Catholic Foundation, the philanthropic arm for the Diocese of Orange.  

The fundraising process itself, Dr. Nguyen stresses, points to the dedication, faith and gratitude of the Catholic-Vietnamese community, as well as to the generosity of so many. “I’m amazed how so many people responded when we shared the story behind the shrine. Our committee’s fundraising team reached out to individual parishes, and they did a wonderful job. Families and individuals without a great deal of money were so generous. Many priests donated personally.”  

She added that when the artisans learned about the story of Our Lady, they jumped on board and chose the project over larger, more lucrative jobs. 

After the shrine is completed, it will be a focal point of the Diocese’s Marian Day, to be celebrated annually. The shrine’s dedication ceremony is planned for late 2021. 

“My maternal grandmother was very spiritual,” Bishop Nguyen says, “and she visited the original La Vang Shrine [in Vietnam] periodically. She would often tell me, ‘No matter what happens in your life, with Mary everything will be okay.’”