Parishioners gather around Father Rafael Xuan Nguyen, left, and Father… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
In a well-lit gym, the two men in white and gold robes sat on folding chairs, struggling to control their emotions.
The Catholic faithful — grandmothers, fathers, members of a youth ministry — surged forward, offering tributes.
"We will never forget you," parishioner Hieu Hoang said. "To us, you are like our own father. You will always be with us."
"Please don't forget us," another added.
The sudden removal of two Vietnamese American priests at the largest parish serving Little Saigon has left the congregation at St. Barbara's confused and angry. Tithing and attendance at the Roman Catholic church in Santa Ana has fallen off and some worshipers have vowed to stay away until they are told why their spiritual leaders are being sent to parishes elsewhere in Orange County.
But after the priests' final Mass on Sunday, hundreds returned to the church to attend a farewell celebration for Father Michael Mai Khai Hoan and Father Rafael Xuan Nguyen.
The church, which holds Masses in Vietnamese, Spanish and English, has been adopted by immigrants who send their children to its parish school, pack the pews on weekends and steadily fill its collection plates. The church has 4,800 registered families.
The drama at St. Barbara's began unfolding in October, when parishioners were told that the two priests would immediately suspend their duties, isolating them from worshipers. To some the timing seemed odd, given that the church's leader, Pastor Richard Kennedy, was absent on sick leave.
Then last week it was announced that Father Hoan was being dispatched to St. Nicholas Church in Laguna Woods, where he would be senior pastor. Father Xuan Nguyen was moved to Santa Ana as parochial vicar of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Father Augustin Vu is replacing them as parochial vicar at St. Barbara's.
"These actions will not have an impact on the leadership structure at St. Barbara's," said Stephen Bohannon, spokesman for the Diocese of Orange. There has been no official explanation from the diocese for the removal of the priests.
But in the absence of information, rumors filled the void. Some questioned whether the removal was a form of discrimination, or even a punishment aimed at an immigrant congregation.
"This incident has caused a lot of consternation, anger and grief among us. It has lessened our trust and confidence for the top officials of the Diocese," retired Father Thomas Ha Do wrote to the diocese's incoming bishop, Kevin W. Vann. "Vocations for priesthood and religious life will go down and contributions for the new cathedral will suffer a great deal on account of this. It takes us a long time to recover."
Those who attended the farewell ceremony said they have lost something special in the departing priests.
"All the things they have given us — the lessons about love, why we must care for one another — we will remember when we are working so hard and struggling," said Hang Nguyen, a widow with four children who serves as office manager for religious education at the church.
"Even if the priests were to go to another country, we will not lose our ties," says Hieu Hoang, who represents Doan Lien Minh Thanh Tan, a religious group with more than 250 members attending St. Barbara's. "There will be times when we need them and their prayers."
The audience, many bundled in woolen scarves and coats, clapped after each speaker. Women wearing traditional flowing silk ao dai dresses crumbled tissue and sobbed. Cameramen documented the drama, which is airing on Vietnamese cable television.
The priests, their eyes glistening, declined to speculate on what had happened. "Up to this moment, we do not know why we are leaving and suddenly, we got transferred," Father Xuan Nguyen said. "Because we are not clear, we cannot say anything because we do not know anything."
They strolled past the congregation a final time, arms stretched wide to share embraces. After removing their vestments, They climbed into a black Mercedes, which slowly drove away.