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New Vietnamese church a blessing

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The future of the Vietnamese Catholic Community has been further strengthened with the dedication of its new 1200-seat church at Pooraka on Sunday September 29.

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In what was a momentous occasion in its 40-year history in South Australia, the Church of Our Lady of The Boat People was dedicated by Apostolic Administrator Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ, with an evening of Vietnamese celebrations to follow.

“It has been a long journey and there has been a lot of expectation. Our community is very excited,” chaplain for the Vietnamese Catholic Community, Monsignor Minh-Tam Nguyen told The Southern Cross prior to the opening.

“The church is named in honour of the Virgin Mary whom we trust to have protected us all on our perilous boat journeys in search of freedom.”

The opening is the culmination of a five-year $6 million project that included the construction of a new multi-purpose hall and the conversion of the original hall into the new church.

Built in the 1990s, the first hall served as a place where the Vietnamese Catholic Community could gather to celebrate their faith, often with sections partitioned off for other cultural activities. However, with 39 active groups – including 15 prayer groups – spanning various spiritual and social activities occurring on a weekly or monthly basis, it became clear over time that a larger space was needed.

PROUD: Thiet Nguyen, coordinator of Construction Advisory Committee, Khiem Cong Dinh, vice president of the Executive Pastoral Committee, chaplain Mgr Minh-Tam Nguyen, Sr Maria Trang Thi Thu Tran, pastoral associate, and Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Catholic Community.

In 2014 an advisory group, under the guidance of the chaplain and the Executive Pastoral Committee, was formed to oversee the development project. The first stage saw the construction of a new multi-purpose hall so that the congregation could move in there while the original hall was renovated.

“The wish and dreams of the community to have a proper church has been burning for a long time,” said Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Catholic Community.

“With the support of Emeritus Archbishop Philip Wilson and with so many hands coming together, we were able to convert it into a dedicated place of worship, a warm and peaceful church for those who wish to come and connect with God, Our Father.” added Mgr Minh-Tam.

The characteristics of the church have a strong Vietnamese influence, from the fan-like interior design and bamboo walls, to the Stations of the Cross with authentic orient-shaped roofs in which each shingle was handcrafted individually.

The distinctive wave-like structure at the entrance to the church serves as a stark reminder for future generations of the history of the Vietnamese Catholic boat people, who founded a community for mutual support and built a church to worship God and honour Mary.

A mezzanine level has been created as a choir loft and there is capacity to video stream services outside at times such as Easter and Christmas when the church is overflowing.

Providing a strong visual impact inside the church are the impressive jarrah pews that fill the expansive space. The 132 pews and 12 screens in front of each bay were made by ‘yourtown’ in Port Pirie, a social enterprise run in the Lasallian tradition.

More than 20 young people were involved in the transitional employment program at various stages over a 12 month period and coordinator Matt Coates said one of the biggest challenges was the different lengths of the pews.

“The smallest pews were only 1.5m long and the longest pews were 7.6m which means they can fan out around the chapel. Using a small CNC router we were also able to engrave a crucifix into the ends of each pew which has given them a nice touch,” he said.

Funding for the development at Pooraka was obtained through donations from members of the Vietnamese community, voluntary contributions and a loan from the Catholic Development Fund.

Many members of the community worked tirelessly staging fundraising events to support the project. Some of those included an annual dinner for 650 people and baking ‘Lunar New Year glutinous cakes’ (called Bánh Chưng in Vietnamese). The latter saw more than 100 people working in shifts, from early morning to late at night, for eight consecutive days to prepare the cakes – not just for people in the Catholic community but also the wider Vietnamese community in South Australia.

In the lead up to the dedication of Our Lady of The Boat People, one of the community’s first parishioners reflected on the importance of the event to her and future generations.

Sa Nguyen, 88, arrived in Adelaide with her family as a boat refugee in 1978. She recalled back then there were about only 80 Vietnamese Catholics in Adelaide and they were scattered in parishes throughout the city.

As the community grew they hired churches at Norwood, Brompton, Hindmarsh and even a roller skating rink so they could celebrate Mass together. In the 1990s the Community moved to its current site on South Terrace, Pooraka.

“It was always in our prayers to have a church like this and for our future. I do not have much longer in my lifetime but it will be for the future, so children can have a feeling of belonging in a place that they can call home,” an emotional Mrs Nguyen said through an interpreter.

“This church is fantastic and a blessing from God.”

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