“We may be small in stature, but we dream big!” Those were the words of Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv, Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, who was in Melbourne on 22 February 2020 for the opening the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine in Keysborough, southeast of Melbourne.
The shrine has been a labour of love for the Vietnamese Catholic community of Melbourne, building what Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne, called a “temple of our Lord for the people of Melbourne.”
Speaking to the almost two thousand people gathered, the Archbishop acknowledged what has been the work of generations of Vietnamese families in Melbourne.
“It’s been some 40 years since the beginning of this journey, and I want to say to you this is not the completion of the journey, it’s only beginning … especially to the young people here today, this is something that will be part of your faith history—the building of this community of the people of God in Melbourne.”
The first of the boat people from Vietnam arrived in Australia in the late 1970s. Many of them were Catholics, with families settling around Melbourne. By the early 1980s, these Vietnamese had established the Saint John Hoan Community in Collingwood and the Saint Thomas Thien Community in Springvale.
In 1988, the Archdiocese of Melbourne gave approval for the two communities to purchase 38,890 square metres of land in Keysborough to build the St Hoan Thien Community Centre.
Over the years, the Community Centre has been the site of many milestones for the Vietnamese Catholic community, from festivals, feast days and congresses. In 1994, Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (who later became Cardinal and in 2017 was made Venerable by Pope Francis) presided over a Mass to celebrate the grand opening of the Centre.
In 2015, Archbishop Denis Hart approved the building of a church on the site, and in 2018, Bishop Long officially announced the name change to Our Lady of La Vang Shrine and blessed the foundation stone of a new church.
The community describes the new church as “the expression of our faith in God who protected us during the great exodus from our homeland, guided us to Australia, and enabled us to be a community of prayer, solidarity and charity.” According to the building committee, the two concrete panels at the front of the church are shaped like open hands, representing the welcoming hands of Australia. Behind the altar are the two coloured glass panels, each depicting people being saved from drowning by divine intervention—one of the apostle Peter, and the other of the Vietnamese boat people.
What was once a dream for one of the country’s largest migrant communities—a project that has seen three Melbourne archbishops and been the work of generations of Vietnamese families—has now become a reality.
Kim Trang, head of the fundraising committee for the project, said she’s been part of the project for the last 15 years. “Today is a big day for us. The whole community feels so blessed. For many years I’ve been contributing my time to this community and we have been waiting for many years for this opening. My whole family is here with me and we are so excited for this big day. This place is open to everyone!”
Steven, one of the youth leaders of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement said it was good to celebrate the community’s achievement. “It’s so good to see the community gathered today—it means so much to see lots of new faces who’ve taken time on their Saturday to participate in our special event.”
Bishop Long delivered the homily at the Mass, and thanked Archbishop Comensoli and the Archdiocese of Melbourne for supporting the long-term project.
“We (Vietnamese) may be small; but we dream big!” Bishop Long said the shrine was a testament to the vocation of the faithful gathered. “Like Peter in today’s gospel, we too are called to be ‘a rock’ for others, supporting and enabling the faith of one another.
“At my episcopal ordination some years ago, I announced then that we are the ‘new Irish’ in Australia. In many ways you are witnessing this phenomenon in Melbourne and beyond—in terms of the priests, nuns, sisters and seminarians of Vietnamese origin. But also in places like this, where the Vietnamese Catholic faithful are making their faith and their presence felt. So today is a day of great rejoicing for the Church in Melbourne and Australia. This shrine—Our Lady of La Vang—is a sign of the vitality and richness of our Catholic faith.
“Let us say thanks and pray that people may grow in this place and may become the instruments of God for the transformation of the world, or as Jesus would want it: that we become the leaven, the light, and the city built on the hilltop.”
Reproduced with permission from Melbourne Catholic, the news publication of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.