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1857: Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Phoenix. The church is administered by the Order of Preachers (more commonly known as the Dominicans), St Vincent Liem Vicariate.
The building: A large building of oriental design. If it were not for the crosses on top, one could easily mistake it for a Buddhist temple or a Chinese restaurant. A series of peaked roofs with swoopy points give the church a distinct Far East appearance. A large patio leads to gently rising stairs, flanked by giant dragons, up to the great west door, carved with images representing the four Evangelists. When finished, the sanctuary will be a bright, open room, smaller than one would expect judging from the outside. But tonight's mass was held in the church basement, a large, dark room with overhead fluorescent lighting and a cement floor covered with wax or shellac. At one end is a red curtain, in front of which is a small altar. Behind the altar is a rather garish crucifix on an aluminum panel framed by blue, green and yellow neon lights. To the left was a Nativity crèche.
The church: The parish was founded in 2004 by Phoenix's Vietnamese-American community. Ground was broken in 2007 for the present building. The faithful worshipped at borrowed quarters nearby during the arduous construction process, interrupted numerous times by lack of funds. The parish was adamant about paying cash for their new church, refusing a generous loan from the Diocese of Phoenix. Although overall responsibility for the project lay with a licensed contractor, the parishioners themselves volunteered most of the labor. Passers-by would marvel at crews of young men dressed in Vietnamese peasant garb of conical straw hats and baggy trousers toiling away under the hot Arizona sun. The parish's dream of having a place of their own has finally come true. The church is named in memory of the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of missionary-trained Christians in Indochina from the 16th century onward into modern times. The tortures visited on these individuals are thought to be among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom.
The neighborhood: Vietnamese Martyrs Church is located on Northern Avenue not far from its intersection with Interstate 17, also known as the Black Canyon Freeway. The area is a mix of working-class single-family houses, apartment buildings, and strip mall commercial centers. Nearby is Metrocenter, which, when it opened in 1973, was one of the largest shopping malls in the United States. Metrocenter quickly became the fashionable place to shop as well as a popular hang-out spot, its circular roadways serving as a favorite "cruising" locale for young men in tricked-up cars. But now young men and fashionable shoppers have taken their cars and money elsewhere, and Metrocenter is only a shadow of its former self.
The cast: An unnamed Dominican priest. The Revd Joseph Nguyen, O.P., pastor, whom I recognized from media photos, was milling about, but he neither concelebrated nor served as deacon, nor attended in choir. The celebrant was assisted by a crucifer and acolytes in albs, as well as lay readers and eucharistic ministers. The celebrant wore his amice outside his chasuble, in Dominican fashion in the old Dominican rite, the priest would process into church with the amice over his head, make his chalice immediately upon arriving at the altar, and then lower the amice about his shoulders as mass began.
The date & time: Thursday, December 24, 2009, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve Mass.

How full was the building?
Completely full about 500 people sitting, plus easily another 200 standing in the aisles and the back. It was predominantly a young crowd, with lots of teenagers and young families with small children. There was a scattering of older people. I was the only non-Vietnamese ethnic in the place.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher handed me an offering envelope. I smiled and nodded, but he did not return the greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes a simple wooden pew with no kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The young children were fidgeting, squirming, babbling and crying, creating an incessant din that became louder as the evening wore on. People were walking up and down the aisles trying to find seats in the crowded church. A choir of about a dozen mixed voices were singing what I assume were Vietnamese Christmas carols I did not recognize any of the tunes. Their voices were far from professional, but the overall effect was not unpleasant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The celebrant entered carrying the Bambino in his arms, which he placed in the crèche and then censed the crèche. He immediately began a chant in Vietnamese that was taken up by the choir and people. I assumed it was the asperges, but no sprinkling ensued. I then realized it must be the gloria, judging from a bow at what I assume was the name of Jesus and amen chanted at the end. Bottom line the mass did not begin with the sign of the cross or with the confession or Kyrie.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None at all.

What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard, electric guitar and amplified acoustic guitar.

Vietnamese Martyrs Parish, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Did anything distract you?
Miss Amanda was trying her best not to be an old crabapple, especially on Christmas eve, but the noise the children were making continued throughout the entire mass and her patience began to wear thin. Add to that the fact that the parents of the three small children sitting in her pew found it necessary to take the children in and out, in and out, first to see the crèche, then to make potty (one assumes), then to retrieve a shoe that one of them had managed to kick off, etc., climbing over her each time. I finally relinquished my seat and remained standing for the rest of the mass.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A most interesting take on a novus ordo high mass. Almost the entire mass was chanted, including the collect, secret, eucharistic prayer, Lord's Prayer and post-communion prayer, as well as the ordinary of the mass, to an Oriental-sounding chant that basically alternated between do and the sol below it, with embellishments on the intervening notes. The choir sang the psalm to a country-and-western sounding waltz tune that reminded me of the jingle we used to sing on the playground as children: "Robinson Crusoe, a fine sailor he, fiddlee-dee, fiddlee-dee." The gospel book was censed and the usual censing took place at the offertory. Bells were rung at the consecration. Some people held hands during the Lord's Prayer, others adopted the orans position; but most chose a more sensible posture. The peace was exchanged, but no one exchanged it with me. We received communion under both species, with the pastor assisting in his Dominican habit but no stole.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Strictly on the basis of what I could observe, as it was in Vietnamese and I didn't understand a word of it. The priest appeared to make good rapport with the congregation. He spoke clearly and varied his pitch and volume appropriately.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
No idea but thank heaven the PA system was good, as the aforementioned fidgeting, squirming, babbling and crying of the young children rose steadily throughout.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
To see this congregation worshipping in their own church, and in their own language, and so actively taking part in a very nicely done liturgy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But the noise level was the highest I have ever heard in church. They badly need a nursery.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone pressed forward to form a mob scene around the crèche. I thought it best to head in the opposite direction. There was lots of greeting and visiting, but none directed at me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – The parish does not conduct a ministry to the English-speaking community. However, if I were Vietnamese, I am sure I would feel very much at home here, provided they found a way to get the children under control. The liturgy was very well done and most interesting!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I was all set to write down some pleasantry about the universality of the Church, but when the choir broke out at communion time with "O Holy Night" in Vietnamese! it made any such pleasantry come true. I'll be back when the sanctuary is finally finished and when the church is consecrated. At least the bishop will speak English.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The noise level. But aside from that, there was some media attention paid while the church was under construction, but there has been nothing in the media about the church being finished at last or being open for services. I am happy to give Ship of Fools a "scoop" on that count.
 
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