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A new year, a new church

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Some days, he'd go from house to house till midnight, asking parishioners from as far as Pasco County for donations. On weekends, his wife would drive to a Gibsonton farm to buy vegetables to sell after Mass. Little by little, the money trickled in.

For the past 12 years, Vietnamese Catholics, such as Tranh H. Tran and Kim Uyen, devoted their time to raising funds for a building to call their own. They sold tickets to Vietnamese concerts, dipped into their own savings and asked relatives elsewhere to give what they could.

Meanwhile, more than 200 Vietnamese families celebrated Mass in other churches, jostling for time and space with the congregations there.

A few years ago, the Diocese of St. Petersburg gave them 5 acres of land next to St. Matthew Catholic Church on 90th Avenue, off Starkey Road in the Largo area. They got a loan from the diocese. And somehow, they managed to raise more than $381,000.

On Saturday, exactly 12 years after they founded their mission, the Church of the Vietnamese Holy Martyrs, members of the group broke ground on their $460,000 building at 9111 90th Ave. N.

It will be the only Catholic Vietnamese pastoral mission in the Tampa Bay area with its own building. Construction is expected to take eight months.

"For us, the dream is very long," said the beaming Rev. Pierre Pham Van Chinh. "And now, the dream is realized."

When the mission was first founded in St. Petersburg, there were only two or three families. As the Vietnamese population in Florida grew, so did the number of parishioners. Families came from throughout Pinellas County and as far away as New Port Richey and Sarasota to attend Mass.

The Masses, which are in Vietnamese, have been held at five or six churches during the years. They had to make do with the time left over after other congregations met.

The new building, which will seat up to 450, will allow them to hold two Masses a week, and give them space for social activities and classes teaching kids to write their native language.

"In a Vietnamese church, we can celebrate Mass according to the traditions of the Vietnamese people," said Khai Nguyen of St. Petersburg. That means holding ceremonies to pay respect to their ancestors and educating children the Vietnamese way, he said.

"It is different from the American way," Nguyen said.

So, when Pham told his congregation the plans for a new building, they gave generously.

Some years, they managed to raise $10,000. Other years, they only scraped together $7,000. An anonymous donor gave $20,000. Some gave $20, all they had.

Relatives in other states chipped in, sending money from Phoenix, New Orleans, Houston, even Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago, a group of 20 Vietnamese cleared the waist-high grass on the vacant property with shovels and their bare hands. Someone offered to donate a marble altar table. Others have promised to help out during construction.

Last year, 8-year-old Anna Ha told her mother she didn't want any Christmas presents. Sure, she wanted dolls and toys, but the church needed the money. The money intended for her gifts went to the church.

"I thought she was just kidding," said Pham T. Ngan, 35, of St. Petersburg. "She said, "If I give to the church, after I die, I go to heaven.' "

Ngan collected donations Saturday, sitting at a table with other women wearing winter jackets over their colorful ao dais, traditional Vietnamese dresses. Others prepared trays of spring rolls, sticky rice, shrimp fried rice and slices of roast pig. A lion dance troupe waited to perform as part of their New Year's celebration, Tet.

Inside the tent, the smell of incense filled the air as priests presided over Mass under a yellow banner with the words, Kinh Mung Cac Thanh Tu Dao Viet Nam. Welcome to the Church of the Vietnamese Holy Martyrs.

"Today is a proud moment for us, for our community, for the diocese of St. Petersburg," Vincent Tran, 29, St. Petersburg, told the congregation.

The mission is named in honor of 117 Catholic martyrs who were slain in Vietnam between the 16th and 19th centuries. All were proclaimed saints in 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

Some 130,000 Vietnamese Christians have died for their faith since the religion arrived in the country in the 16th century. Vietnam, which is predominantly Buddhist, is about 8 percent Catholic.

Father John Gerth, pastor at St. Matthew's, said the Vietnamese mission will continue to hold Mass at his church until the building is completed.

"They were really happy to see this because they knew how persecuted the Vietnamese were," Gerth said.

In the early 1980s, many Vietnamese fled their homeland after the fall of Saigon. Others came to America in 1995 through the Humanitarian Order, which granted visas to former South Vietnamese military officers, who had been detained in re-education camps, and their families.

Dong Tran, 64, a former South Vietnamese military officer, spent a decade in such a camp.

Priests were in the camp, as well, and they held services in secret. If the guards found out, they would cut off their hands.

"They don't give the freedom for religion in my country," said Tran of Pinellas Park.

After he was released, Tran came to Florida with his wife and four children. He was thankful to find the Vietnamese mission. The St. Petersburg diocese now includes about 306 registered Vietnamese families.

"We worship God," Pham said. "We worship God in the Vietnamese way."

_ Shannon Tan can be reached at shtansptimes.