Long time readers may be familiar with a series of articles I've done as Chicago Catholic Examiner called “One Voice, Many Faces”. This series takes a look at vastly different Catholic parishes in the Chicago area, and provides detailed information the history, culture, and vision of each parish. It's been a while since I've written such an article. Part of the reason is because it takes so long to research and develop such articles, and part of the reason is because my next “One Voice, Many Faces” series will focus on three vastly different Hispanic parishes. I'm therefore waiting for an opportune time to publish it. But in the meanwhile, a very unusual Catholic parish in Chicago came to my attention over this weekend. Accordingly, I'm doing a solo article about St. Henry's parish at 6335 N. Hoyne Avenue in Chicago, IL. You'll probably find some surprises if you read further, and remember – they're Catholic, too.
St. Henry's, on Chicago's far north side, was one of the first churches built in the area. Prior to 1851, the new residents who lived in that undeveloped area of Chicago held their Sunday masses in a log house built by Peter Schmitt on the Ridge Trail (now known as Ridge Avenue). Seeing the need for a church building, St. Henry's was constructed at the northwest corner of Ridge Avenue and Devon Avenue in 1851. Appropriately enough, the architect was named Henry – specifically, Henry Fortmann. The small, modest church was replaced by a larger structure in 1872. The parish congregation outgrew that building as well, so the present, stately church building was constructed in 1905.
St. Henry's began its life in Chicago as the first and only Luxembourg Roman Catholic parish in Chicago. It became a “clearing house” of sorts for new immigrants from Luxembourg. To this day, many people of Luxembourg origin throughout the Midwest know about “St. Henry’s on the Ridge.” For many years, it was the foremost Catholic Church for Chicagoans north of the Irving Park area, including most residents of what is now the present-day suburb of Evanston, IL. It's membership consisted of numerous Catholic ethnic groups, including Irish and Germans, but Luxembourgers were the predominant members.
A visit to St. Henry's today, however, and you'll be very unlikely to find anyone of Luxembourg ancestry at all, let alone any first generation immigrants from Luxembourg. The population of Chicago's far north side underwent rapid change in the 1970s, and most of Luxembourg families were transferred to a nearby Croatian parish, where they remain today.
Of course, St. Henry's didn't dry up and die at all. Rather, the newer immigrant residents in the neighborhood stepped up to take their place. What makes St. Henry's unique is that it is one of perhaps only two Catholic parishes in Chicago that has a predominantly Vietnamese congregation. Very few people think of Vietnamese-Americans when we talk about immigrant parishes, or even Asian-American parishes. Many Catholics know there are large numbers of Filipino, Chinese, and Korean Catholics in America, but Vietnamese? They don't seem to be on the radar screen, especially in Illinois.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many waves of Vietnamese immigrants came to the United States to flee the communist takeover of South Vietnam in the 1970s. Though few people think of Catholicism when we think of Vietnam, Catholics actually make up a large segment of the Vietnamese population, especially among the educated and professional classes (doctors, lawyers, etc.) Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia today. According to a recent study, there are roughly 5,658,000 Catholics in Vietnam, spread across 26 dioceses (including three archdioceses) with 2228 parishes and 2668 priests.
The Vietnamese immigrant population to the United States is even more heavily Catholic than the population residing in Vietnam proper. Indeed, when the first and only Vietnamese-American was elected to Congress a few years back, he had the distinction of being a devout Roman Catholic. Anh “Joseph” Cao, who represented Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District from 2009-2011, almost ended up with a different career: a Roman Catholic priest. He was a Jesuit seminarian for six years, but withdrew from his studies when he realized that the ministry was not his calling. He eventually graduated from law school, and now works as a legal adviser to immigrants. Cao also serves as a board member for Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church's Community Development Corporation, which assists Vietnamese-Americans with hurricane relief. He is also a member of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Now that we have some context about the Vietnamese-American population, let's get back to St. Henry's in Chicago. These days, the parish offers services in both English and Vietnamese/Laotian. English language masses are held on weekdays at 7:30 AM, Saturday at 4:00 PM, and Sunday at 10:00 AM. Vietnamese/Laotian masses are held on Saturday at 5:30 PM and Sunday at 8:00 & 11:30 AM. Over this past weekend, St. Henry's had their annual parish festival, a three-day event including a "Taste of St. Henry." During the celebration, the faithful honored the Vietnamese Martyrs — several groups of Catholic men and women who died for their faith during a long period of persecution.
The Vietnamese Martyrs consist of 117 men and women killed in Vietnam. They were beautified and canonized as saints over a long period of time, with the most recent additions on June 19, 1988, by Pope John Paul II. Their memorial day is November 24th. The Vatican estimates the actual number of Vietnamese martyrs is between a staggering number of 130,000 to 300,000 individuals. However, the 117 that were canonized consists of various people whose stories we know. They were killed during various Communist purges of the 20th century. The numbers include 96 native Vietnamese citizens, 11 Spanish Dominicans, and 10 French members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society who were tortured and killed In Vietnam for refusing to recant their Catholic faith. The means of torture was considered among the most painful martyrdom in Catholic history, as the torturers hacked off limbs joint by joint, tore flesh with red hot tongs, and used drugs to enslave their victims. Catholics who still refused to recant their faith were branded on the face with the words "ta dao" (which literally means "Left [Sinister] religion") Whole families and villages that subscribed to Christianity were obliterated.
Given the unspeakable horrors that their families endured in Vietnam, it is truly a remarkable testament that Vietnamese-Americans have survived and prospered in the United States, including many families experiencing the vibrant liturgical life at St. Herny's. Among many others, the parish family consists of the pastor, Fr. Dominic V. Ha, the parish secretary, Binh Keefe, the Vietnamese Chairman ,Thuan Vu, the resident nun, Sister Cecilia Fandel, OSM, and the director of religious education (Vietnamese), Quang Tran. For their recent three-day festival, Bishop Francis Kane visited the parish to join St. Henry's in Mass to celebrate Our Lady of LaVang. As you can see from the photos, the event was a tremendous success and a lively time was had by all. Here's to St. Henry's – one of the little known but most remarkable Catholic parishes in Chicago.