Vietnamese diaspora parish in Netherlands
Most Vietnamese people now living in the Netherlands came to the country in the late 70’s and early 80s’ after the Vietnam war. They were known as boatpeople.
After having arrived in the Netherlands they wanted to continue to live and practice their Christian faith. They joined the local parish where they settled in. But the language barrier posed a real problem. So they sought to contact a priest who could speak their own Vietnamese language.
Slowly two parishes were established, one called the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other the Vietnamese Martyrs parish. These two functioned with the financial support from the Diocese of Utrecht until 2011 when they were asked to merge due to the financial constraints. Since then there is only one Vietnamese parish under the name of Blessed Mary Queen of the Vietnamese Martyrs parish.
This single nation-wide parish serves 25 designated local church communities throughout The Netherlands, from Leeuwarden to Kerkrade and from Goes to Enschede. Each community has its own local council, a hired church or a hired hall where they hold their monthly service. Each community also has its own choir with their musical instruments, altar-servers and lectors – all voluntary. Because they are very committed to coming to Sunday services and to getting involved in their own local parish activities many have been entrusted with the keys of their parish church. In that way they help the local church in various ways and the local church helps them to come to celebrate the Eucharist once a month and to socialise together.
I was officially appointed as parish priest of the Vietnamese diaspora parish from 1 March 2017 and was installed on 1 April 2018 in the church of Vinkeveen, The Netherlands.
It is difficult to know exactly how many Vietnamese people there are in the Netherlands and how many of them are Catholics. But we do have over 850 addresses of catholic families on file to whom we send our parish quarterly magazine.
I normally am very busy during weekends as I have at least 4 services at different locations and have to drive an average of 350 to 450 kilometers each weekend. During the week I can relax a little bit.
My first impression of these initial few months working as animator and parish priest are very positive: I feel much encouraged, accepted and happy. I feel that I have reconnected with my own roots after many years living and working in Kenya, India and Uganda. People in general are good, generous, kind and helpful. They are pious and serious with regard to keeping the tradition, and practicing their faith. They hold the sacraments of the Church in high regard and they would not like to miss out on community events. Yet, there are also signs of division and discord among them: different factions quarrel a lot. People tend to gravitate to those whom they know – in line with their region of origin and local dialect.
One of many beautiful things is that the parish is fully financed by its own people. Each family contributes yearly to help meet expenses including paying the salary, housing, travelling and pension to the parish priest. And yet, one of the challenges is that the older generation is slowly fading away and the younger generation does not care as much for the Vietnamese parish as their parents do. They no longer speak nor understand much Vietnamese. Some parents complain that the Vietnamese youth tend to forget their own identity, origin and country, and that is sad.
Working among the Vietnamese and speaking Vietnamese all the time I miss speaking Dutch and English. I also miss living in a Mill Hill community, which has been my experience since my student days until coming here. I live alone now in a rented old presbytery in a tiny village called Cothen, between Bunnik and Wijk Bij Duurstede, just outside Utrecht. It is a pleasant village. People are kind and helpful. I feel I am accepted by the leaders of the local church and people around the parish house even though I happen to be the parish priest for the Vietnamese parish and I live here in a presbytery of a parish which has no resident priest. The local parish priest lives 20 km away. Yet, I have been asked not to have a fixed timetable nor to celebrate the sacraments with the local Christians. It has been pointed out to me that I am specifically appointed to work for the Vietnamese people and not for the Dutch Catholics in this parish. Fair enough. But, I feel that I also can contribute to the place where I live. I am busy but it does not mean that I cannot have a moment to relax and to join in with the local people to celebrate life on a regular basis.
There are many volunteers, who look after this village church. They come three times a week to clean the church and they have various activities together. They have coffee or tea together every time and I am loath to miss that. It is also a golden chance for me to meet them and practice my Dutch over a cup of coffee. I feel I have become a member in this tiny but beautiful parish, which I feel I belong to.