CARTHAGE, Mo. -- About 60,000 Vietnamese Catholic pilgrims journeyed this weekend from every corner of the United States to this sleepy town in the green, rolling hills of the Ozarks for a festival honoring the Virgin Mary.
For four days, Carthage, usual population 11,000, was transformed into a center of Vietnamese culture and became the fourth largest city in Missouri.
The Marian Days have grown steadily over 21 years to become the central religious, social and cultural event for the country's Vietnamese Catholics.
They come to Carthage, in the state's southwestern corner, because it is the home of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, an order of Vietnamese priests and brothers who came to this country after fleeing Vietnam in fishing boats at the insistence of their founder, a day before South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975. About half the order, including its founder, the Rev. Dominic Mary Tran Dinh Thu, remains in Vietnam.
Why is there a monastery of Vietnamese priests and brothers in the Ozarks, hundreds of miles from any significant Vietnamese community? Because after the priests and brothers fled Vietnam and were scattered across the United States, they were invited by Cardinal Bernard Law, (now of Boston, then bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.) to take up residence in a vacant seminary in Carthage.
So for a few days, the tranquil monastic setting is transformed into a tent city, as most of the pilgrims camp on the grounds, erecting tarps to shield themselves from the summer sun, tying hammocks to trees and outfitting makeshift kitchens.
Time for reunions
"They come from east and west, all over the country, some from Canada," said Brother Francis Cuong, one of nearly 150 members of the order who live in Carthage and serve Vietnamese Catholics in parishes around the United States. "To me, it's amazing. Some come every year. They never skip. Some have come 19 or 20 times."
The weekend is filled with religious events, with Masses, conferences for youth, spiritual talks by the priests and processions with statues of the Virgin Mary carried on flower-covered platforms.
But for many, it's also a time to reunite with friends and family scattered throughout the country.
The weekend has the trappings of a family picnic, with the scent of Vietnamese cuisine wafting over the campsites. Volleyball games attract crowds, and Frisbees are flying everywhere.
For the increasingly Americanized youth, it's a chance to experience Vietnamese culture and for new friendships and romances to blossom. And there are, of course, a few complaints.
"It's tiring, dirty and hot," 16-year-old Thuy Nguyen of Arlington, Texas, said with a scowl. She was wearing a bright yellow traditional dress as she prepared for a dance performance. "And it's impossible to wash your hair."
For Carthage, the festival is an annual windfall.
"It's pretty impressive. All the hotels and motels are full," said Mayor Kenneth Johnson. "I'd say this month, our sales-tax revenue will probably double. Maybe more."
Clash with locals
Still, the influx of so many Vietnamese is a ready-made culture clash. There has been some grumbling, locals say, about long lines at the Consumer's supermarket, people walking on private property and increased traffic in the neighborhoods.
A few homeowners near the festival grounds stake off their property and ring it with twine, and put up signs saying "Private Property" and "Keep Out!"
"I'm surrounded. They're behind me and down there in the school lot and they're all over town," said George Huntley, a retired farmer who lives across the street from the monastery. "Basically, as many people as they are, its a pretty darned good group. I just want them to stay off my property."
But many residents allow camping on their yards, often to the same families year after year.
Seven years ago, Mary Allison, who lives across from the monastery, saw that Le Pham needed a place to change her baby's diaper and invited her to use her bathroom. The two women got to talking, as did their husbands, Gary Allison and Tuan Pham. The Carthage couple invited the family from Oklahoma City to use their yard the next year. Now, the Phams stay in the house, along with the dozens of relatives that come with them.
Saturday afternoon found children from the two families playing together on a trampoline in the yard, and everyone feasted on a picnic of Vietnamese delicacies and southern Missouri classics -- spring rolls and butterfly shrimp with a cheese-potato bake.
Over the years, the two families have become close. The Allison's children were in the wedding party in May of Tuan Pham's sister. The Allisons will spend their Thanksgiving with the Phams in Oklahoma City.
"They're like family to us now," said Gary Allison, 44, who is a munitions manufacturing supervisor. "And they treat us like family. Tuan, he's like my long-lost brother."