For 18 days in a tiny 28-foot by 6-foot boat, 26 Vietnamese refugees cling to life. It is 1979 and they are part of the vast tide of humanity fleeing repression in their homeland. They have already weathered a fierce storm in their tiny craft. They are starving, surviving only on meager rations of rainwater. And faith. 

As much as the boat, faith is what keeps them afloat. 

Each day, twice a day, the Nguyen family prays and recites the rosary. On the final day, they spot land. Despite their exhaustion, the refugees row all day and finally reach shore in the Philippines. 

“My question is, where did we find the energy?” asks Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen. 

Answering his own question, he says, “Only (through) God, with the intercession of the Blessed Mother.” To the Vietnamese faithful, Mary is a pillar represented as Our Lady of La Vang, a Marian apparition that first came over 200 years ago to pray and offer comfort and intercession. 

To the bishop, that perilous trip and Mother Mary laid his path to the priesthood and life in the United States.  

In July 2016 a team of Orange County Catholic Vietnamese volunteers made an impassioned proposal to Bishop Kevin Vann for his approval of a long-wanted effort to create a shrine for Our Lady of La Vang. Two weeks later, Dr. Elysabeth Nguyen, La Vang Shrine Committee, Project Manager, was in Vietnam. Having prayed at the Our Lady of La Vang shrine, she received approval to move forward with the project. 

On Saturday, October 27, ground was broken at the site of the Marian Court at Christ Cathedral for the Our Lady of La Vang shrine. 

More than 200 congregants attended a ceremony at the Cultural Center on the Christ Cathedral Campus. Then about 30 volunteers, along with Bishop Vann, posed with shovels and tossed dirt in a sandbox on the site, while two trucks loaded with dirt idled nearby. 

Bishop Vann said the shrine is important on two levels; to recognize the importance of the Vietnamese congregation in Orange County, home to the world’s largest Vietnamese immigrant population, and as a “testament to their faith.” 

Nearly $11 million has been pledged and over $8 million collected for the $10 million project, with funds overseen by the Orange Catholic Foundation. The shrine and plaza are expected to be in place in time for the dedication of Christ Cathedral in July, 2019. 

For generations, Our Lady of La Vang has held special relevance to Vietnamese Catholics. She first appeared in the late 18th century to persecuted villagers who had fled to the jungle. Many were starving and diseased when the apparition of Mary, in a traditional ao dai garment, appeared in the tree canopy. She carried in her arms an infant child and was accompanied by two angels. The villagers were comforted and told how to boil leaves from the trees for medicine. 

In the United States, Vietnamese Catholics have helped start 19 parishes and shrines to Our Lady of La Vang, including one in Santa Ana celebrating its 10th anniversary. 

Although the Vatican has yet to recognize the event as a Marian apparition, its importance has been noted, most recently by Pope John Paul II. 

Full story at Orange County Catholic.