CANOGA PARK — Ever since Tuteyanh Nguyen immigrated to Chatsworth from Vietnam in 1992, she has balanced her partially American upbringing with her desire to maintain a cultural connection to her homeland.
To strengthen that link, she will be one of 15 girls of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Council of St. Joseph the Worker parish performing traditional Vietnamese dances at the church this afternoon. The dances celebrate the 200th anniversary of an incident in which believers say the Virgin Mary appeared to persecuted Vietnamese Catholics.
"I've adopted so much of American culture," said Tuteyanh, 13, during a break from dance practice this week at the church.
In her white platform sandals and bell-bottomed, faded bluejeans, she looked like most American-born teens. But, she said, it's important to her to celebrate her Vietnamese side as well.
"To know the [traditional] dances, the dress, I wanted to be in touch with that," Tuteyanh said. "I think that's a big part of being Vietnamese."
More than 1,000 congregants are expected to fill the church as Tuteyanh and her fellow dancers, wearing the ao dai, a two-piece traditional dress, step to Vietnamese religious music and gracefully swing violet, green, and yellow chiffon scarves to the rhythm.
The colorful ceremony at St. Joseph the Worker will be only one of many celebrated by Vietnamese Catholics around the world. Currently, several hundred thousand worshipers are gathering at a three-day festival in La Vang, a small town near the ancient capital of Hue in central Vietnam, to honor the memory of the appearance there of the apparition of a beautiful lady with a radiant face in brilliant costume.
According to Vietnamese Catholic belief, the figure of the virgin appeared to a group of oppressed Catholics who had sought refuge in the La Vang forest to escape being beheaded by Vietnamese Emperor Canh Thinh in 1798. She instructed the group how to maintain their health while hiding in the brush and told them to keep faith in God, the story says.
Catholicism was then, as now, a minority religion in Vietnam, where currently about 10% of the population are Catholics, said Father Joseph Duc-Minh, who serves as liaison to the Vietnamese community for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Father Duc-Minh, of St. John Seminary in Camarillo, said the bicentennial ceremony is of great significance for Vietnamese Catholics, especially the youth.
"The Vietnamese people are very anxious to preserve their national culture and hand it down to their children and grandchildren," said Duc-Minh of the archdiocese's 15,000 Vietnamese Catholics.
"In celebration of Catholicism, we try to introduce different cultural elements to give young Vietnamese ideas of faith and culture. That's why we perform the liturgical dances, to blend the cultural elements with Catholic rites," he said.
Organizers of this weekend's festivities expect participants from Simi Valley as far away as San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange County to attend the Valley event. Bishop Gerald Wilkerson will preside over the Mass. Also attending will be Msgr. Tran Van Hoai, coordinator of the Vatican's Vietnamese Pastoral Ministry, visiting from Rome.
Father James Gehl, pastor at St. Joseph the Worker, said the Mass's pageantry will help heal the spiritual wounds of the past.
"When I think of Vietnam, I think of the war in Vietnam, of how we used this little country as a battlefield, . . . and then I see these people who are so faith-filled and have overcome such trauma," he said. "Not so much the younger folks, but the parents know what it was like to lose their homeland. God has gotten them through the toughest of times."