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Vietnamese Catholic Community Breathes Life Into A Struggling Burlington Parish

Sunday Mass is no longer held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at Pine and Cherry streets, but once a month a Vietnamese priest comes down from Montreal to perform Mass in Vietnamese for the local community.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington recently merged its two downtown parishes to save money in the face of declining attendance.

Vietnamese refugees first came to the Burlington area in the late 1970s, and they settled in Burlington and around Chittenden County. Over the past few decades, the Catholic Vietnamese community has grown.

Loc Nguyen, one of the leaders of the Catholic Vietnamese community, says some of the refugees never learned English.

He says they remained committed to attending Mass even though they could not understand the service.

"They would get lost during Mass, and they couldn't go to confession," he says.

Around 1997, the Rev. Francis Holland from Holy Family in Essex recognized the growing community, and Nguyen says Holland encouraged the community to bring a Vietnamese priest in from out of town to lead a monthly Mass.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Loc Nguyen, center, wishes peace upon one of the Vietnamese parishioners.

"He suggested that we form a community so that we can celebrate Mass in our own language," says Nguyen. "We appreciate the English Mass, and we are welcome. We were accepted from the day that we set foot in this country and we are very grateful for that. But, the Vietnamese Mass is really for us, as a whole, to keep some of our culture and language."

The Catholic Church in Burlington has been losing members over the past few decades.

The Rev. Lance Harlow, the rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, says downtown used to be filled with residential neighborhoods of French-Canadians and Irish. He says that they filled the two downtown churches every Sunday.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Rev. Lance Harlow is rector of Burlington's downtown parishes.

"Historically when the church was built, there were thousands of parishioners who came to it," Harlow says. "We used to have thousands of people coming before. Now, on some Sundays, we have about 50. The effect of that has been that our finances have diminished, so we're having difficulty paying our bills here and meeting expenses."

Harlow says as the local community cleared out of downtown, new immigrants from Vietnam and West Africa have settled in. He says these new residents have been able to breathe some life into the downtown parishes.

"You know, we speak about refugees and what they contribute to the community," Harlow says. "They sing beautifully. They clap during Mass. They're very expressive and very joyful. And so their contribution to our American culture is one of joy, one of beauty, one of dignity."

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Pine Street in Burlington might be sold. The Sunday Mass is no longer held in the cathedral, but the Vietnamese Mass is still held there once a month.

Nguyen says Vietnamese church members come from towns throughout Chittenden County once a month to attend the Mass, which is held entirely in Vietnamese.

"As a whole, bigger picture, we're not enough to make a big difference," he says. "So whatever trend the Catholic Church is going through right now, we will do our part to contribute to the church as best we can."

The regular Sunday Mass is now held at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral on Allen Street, and it will be up to the Roman Catholic leadership to make a decision about selling the Pine Street cathedral.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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