Alexis Tran Van Anh tends to plants at the cemetery for clergymen in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: UCA News)
Alexis Tran Van Anh is daily busy watering, weeding, putting down fertilizer and spraying chemicals on flower beds and bonsai trees, trimming branches and grafting new plants at the old cemetery for clergymen.
Anh, who has worked at the cemetery in Ho Chi Minh City for seven years, said many people including motorbike taxi drivers volunteer to repair the cemetery’s electric and water systems, offer new flowers, bonsai trees, natural fertilizer and even financial support.
“We try to beautify the graveyard to attract many people to visit and pray for our late bishops and priests who spent their lives serving the Church,” the 64-year-old gardener said.
The father of one, who runs a motorbike parking service, said many people daily visit the cemetery with high trees lining its entrance, place flowers and incense on graves, say prayers and pose for pictures with its colorful and scented flowers.
Father Clement Le Minh Trung, pastor of Chi Hoa Parish, and some 100 people gather to pray rosaries on Monday evenings at the cemetery — the final resting place to some 200 priests and bishops, including foreign missionaries, who served Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese. The oldest grave dates back to 1908 and the latest 1983.
Anh said the 4,500-square-meter graveyard next to Chi Hoa Church was previously not looked after properly. Wild weeds and plants covered graves, residents walked on them and threw garbage, and drug abusers left syringes there at night. Local Catholics only cleaned it during lunar new year and November, the month dedicated to all souls.
Father Trung called on Catholics to decorate graves and clean the cemetery every week after he was assigned to the parish in 2013.
Some priests who used to serve the parish are also buried at the cemetery. “We must look after the site well so that it is worth being home to the late clergymen,” Anh said.
He said he is happy that the cemetery now serves as a meeting place which attracts parishioners to pray for the departed.
Teresa Nguyen Thi Lien, head of a group of Catholics who share God’s Word based at the parish, said 10 members sweep walkways in the burial ground and remove old flowers and incense from the graves on Monday mornings after they finish their daily Eucharist adoration at the church.
Lien said many members are from other places and volunteer to care for the cemetery as their parish ones.
“Other graveyards are characterized by coldness and death but this one is full of life and good feelings thanks to our work,” she said.
The graves remind people to respect the gift of life granted by God, living a good life and serving other people so that they can be in heaven after death. The necropolis decorated by flowers and plants and electric lamps at night is a sacred place for local people.
“We believe that our ancestors in heaven are happy to see us show our gratitude to them by cleaning their graves,” Lien, 72, said. “And God is pleased to see his children love and pray for one another.”
Women collect dead leaves and garbage at the cemetery for clergymen. (Photo: UCA News)
Grateful to departed priests
Anne Su Khac Hong Hoa, another group member from Nam Thai Parish, said she volunteers to clean the graveyard and pray for the departed priests to be in heaven as a way to express her gratitude to them.
“I believe that in return they will pray for us to have good things in our lives and after our death,” Hoa, 53, said, promising to maintain her work at the graveyard.
The beauty salon owner said her group also hold retired priests in high respect by cooking meals to treat them. Chi Hoa Parish runs a home for dozens of retired priests.
“Living priests also need our care and love as much as the departed so we do our best to serve them,” Hoa said.
Anne Nguyen Thi Nhuan from Nam Hoa Parish said she is deeply grateful to Father Trung and other Catholics who take good care of graves and developed the cemetery into a park.
She said in the past she did not dare to visit the cemetery because it was neglected and home to drug users. Her uncle, a priest, was laid to rest there.
“Now we regularly visit our uncle’s grave and pray for him and other priests,” Nhuan said while placing incense on graves.
On Nov. 5, Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang of Ho Chi Minh City and 170 priests concelebrated a special Mass to pray for departed clergymen and offered incense to graves at the cemetery.
Archbishop Nang said deceased bishops and priests bore witness to the Good News by their lives and sow seeds so that we could harvest today.
“We should follow their example in living Christian values in our daily lives and plant seeds for the younger generations to get the fruits,” he told the congregation.