For more than two decades, St. Martha Church in Ashland City has been the home of the Vietnamese Catholic Community in the Diocese of Nashville.
Vietnamese families from neighborhoods and cities around the Nashville area have traveled to St. Martha each weekend to worship in their own language and with their own cultural traditions.
Now, a search for a more central location for the more than 300 families in the community has led them to St. Pius X Church in Nashville.
“We want a more central place and a Mass schedule that is earlier so they can go to Mass and then to work if they need to work,” said Father Hung Pham, the chaplain of the Vietnamese community in the diocese.
The move will become official on June 1, and the new schedule of Masses will begin on Sunday, June 6.
“I am excited about the move,” said Father Pham, who is hoping to have a picnic at 11:30 a.m. on June 6 for the Vietnamese and St. Pius X communities. He also plans to invite the people from St. Martha. “We are grateful to them. They befriended the Vietnamese community.”
The association with the Vietnamese community has been beneficial for St. Martha, said the pastor, Father Ben Butler. “St. Martha has been the home for the Vietnamese for a long time. They’ve contributed in both spiritual and material ways to the parish, for which we’ll always be thankful.
“I don’t fault them for wanting to be closer to where they live,” he added.
Once the move is permanent, the Vietnamese Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Sundays at St. Pius. Religious education classes will be held before the Mass, and Father Pham said the classes will be open to any St. Pius parishioners who are interested.
He hopes to offer language classes and cultural events after Mass.
Many of the families in the community are straddling two cultures, Vietnamese and American, said Father Pham, who was born and raised in Vietnam and came to the United States for his seminary studies.
“The first generation are the refugees, the boat people,” who fled their homeland at the end of the Vietnam War, Father Pham said. “They started the community.”
The next generation who grew up in the United States have started their own families here but are still connected to the Vietnamese culture, Father Pham said.
Meanwhile, more Vietnamese have continued to emigrate to the United States and Nashville seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, he said.
There can be a language gap in families where the older generation speaks Vietnamese and the younger generation speaks English, Father Pham said. “Their parents, they spend so much time working they don’t have time to study English,” he said.
He wants to offer language classes and other cultural events “so the younger generation can understand their parents and to help the parents understand their children better,” Father Pham said.
Father Pham, who is in residence at St. Ann Church in Nashville, and St. Pius X Pastor Father Abraham Panthalanickal both hope the move to St. Pius will be good for the Vietnamese and English-speaking communities.
“I believe if the two communities come together, we can fill up that church,” which can hold about 320 people, Father Pham said.
Father Panthalanickal, whose parish currently has about 65 registered families, also hopes that families in the Vietnamese community will consider sending their children to the parish school in the future.
The fortunes of both communities can improve if they work together, Father Panthalanickal said. “I think it can be possible to see it as a single community.”
The Vietnamese community casts a wide net over the Nashville area, with families living in Murfreesboro, Antioch, Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and Hendersonville, among other areas, Father Pham said.
The community followed its former chaplain, Father Peter Do Quang Chau, to St. Martha, when he was named pastor there in 2001.
“Father Peter was the anchor for the community to gather,” Father Pham said. “He served the Vietnamese community well at St. Martha. We definitely have great appreciation for him.
“We’re also grateful to the community of St. Martha,” he said. “Together with the Vietnamese community they expanded the ministries (at the parish) and helped out the Vietnamese community when we needed help.”
The people “really have some fond memories there,” said Father Pham, who took over as chaplain of the community in 2019 when Father Peter retired.
Because of the pandemic, Father Pham added a Saturday evening Mass for the community at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Nashville. And early in 2021, Father Pham talked to the Priest Personnel Board about the possibility of moving the community’s Masses to a more central location, and thought of St. Pius, which had only one Mass on Sundays at 8 a.m.
Bishop J. Mark Spalding gave Father Pham permission to explore that option, and Father Pham talked to Father Panthalanickal about the possibility of the Vietnamese community meeting at St. Pius. “He said he would welcome the community,” Father Pham said.
“I thought it was very good at least to see the possibilities of using the facility,” Father Panthalanickal said. “We’re a small community; having people coming here and worshipping here, we’re always happy to see.”
Father Pham talked to the community about moving to St. Pius. A majority favored the move but about 45 percent wanted to stay at St. Martha.
“I decided, why don’t we try it out,” Father Pham said.
He moved the Saturday Mass from St. Ignatius to St. Pius for a 9:45 a.m. Sunday Mass, and that Mass drew more people than the one at St. Martha, Father Pham said. Since the obligation to attend Sunday Mass was restored in the diocese, “the number has been getting bigger and bigger at St. Pius,” he added.
“This Easter we had 270 people at St. Pius for the first Mass and 125 people at St. Martha for the second Mass,” Father Pham said.
Bishop Spalding approved the move from St. Martha to St. Pius earlier this month and Father Pham announced the change to his congregation on Sunday, April 25.