The first thing Mary Tran Thi Tam does after waking at 4 a.m. is to pray at the altar in her terraced house. An hour later, she is all set wearing a traditional dress for the bike ride with her husband to attend worship at Nghia Lo Church, two kilometers away.
“When we were young, he would drive me to all places. But now he is old, so I do the same on my electric bike,” the 71-year-old Tam says referring to her octogenarian husband.
After Mass, the couple go for a walk and then have breakfast before returning home. “We feel sad whenever we are unable to attend Mass due to an illness or some other reason,” she says.
They recite the rosary three times a day while Tam also takes time to actively engage in faith education, charity work and meeting their children and acquaintances.
Transferring faith legacy
Tam, who has a booming voice, has been teaching catechism to children at Nghia Lo parish in Yen Bai province since 2010, after completing her training by Hung Hoa diocese.
She now has 50 children aged under 10 in her class preparing for their First Communion.
“Teaching children is much more difficult than with adults. I play the role of their mother and grandmother,” Tam says.
She stresses that it’s not only about teaching the doctrine but also how to speak, be polite to people, dress appropriately, and show filial affection to their grandparents and parents.
“I find great joy in teaching children how to worship God and live out the faith so that when they grow up, they can be true to their Catholic teaching, avoid obvious pitfalls and social evils, and pass on the faith to future generations,” said Tam, the oldest catechist in her parish
Tam also joins a group of rosary devotees daily to promote rosary recitation among local Catholics. The group came into existence half a century ago and has helped Catholics maintain their religious life, especially during the hard times without a resident priest.
Mary Tran Thi Tam and her husband Peter Nguyen Duc Toan in formal clothes at their home before going to church. (Photo: UCA News)
Happy life with non-Christians
She has been an active member of Caritas and a few other Catholic associations in Nghia Lo parish. She and others regularly visit patients and provide material support to low-income families and victims of natural disasters.
“Those associations offer us opportunities to live a good life, pray more for other people, and make community activities diverse and lively,” Tam says.
She goes out of her way to maintain harmonious relations with local ethnic Thai villagers who follow a tradition of worshipping ancestors and gods that stretches back centuries.
Tam is close to dozens of them and often joins them in singing their folk songs and dancing during their festivals. She also makes it a point to be present for birthdays, weddings, and house-warming parties, as well as funerals.
“I hold their beliefs and traditions in high regard and wear ethnic costumes whenever I'm with them as a way to integrate myself into their community,” she says.
The woman with a rosary around her neck invites them to attend Catholic feasts including the consecration of local new churches.Her ethnic friends join her on pilgrimages to religious sites, offering flowers to Mother Mary at local churches. She offers them rosaries as gifts.
Tam “can eat our food, sing our songs, dance our traditional dances well, and never looks down on us ethnic villagers who have poor education and live in poverty,” says Luong Thi Hong Lien, a 68-year-old non-Catholic ethnic Thai woman.
Lien admits that she is interested in Catholic ceremonies and can sing some hymns thanks to Tam. A dozen ethnic people have embraced Catholicism thanks to her.
A local government official who was strict about religious activities became her husband’s friend and embraced Catholicism before his death.
“We are delighted that all converts choose me and my husband as their godparents, allowing us to accompany them on the path of faith,” Tam says.
Life wasn’t always easy, she says as she prepares a meal, adding her ancestors embraced Catholicism a long time ago.
Her parents moved to Nghia Lo parish in the remote mountainous province of Yen Bai in the 1930s to escape poverty in their home diocese of Thai Binh, 400 kilometers away.
In 1947, the communists forced local people, including Catholics, to leave their homes, cattle and fields for the forests in present-day Tran Yen district to fight French troops.
“My four older siblings died young under harsh conditions. I was born in 1952 and have three younger siblings. Our family was not allowed to return home until 1954 when communist forces took control of the north,” she recalls.
Her family struggled to survive on a daily diet of cassava, bamboo shoots, wild vegetables, and salt for years. But her parents, Tam remembers, made them recite the rosary every morning and night.
"That devotion remained deeply ingrained in my heart and I was determined to bring my children up in the faith," she says.
Mary Tran Thi Tam uses a computer to look for Catholic news on the internet at her home. (Photo: UCA News)
Devoted to family
Tam and her siblings only studied up to the fifth grade as they had to support the family.
“When I was 18 years old, I had an arranged marriage with a handsome man who was a former seminarian. I am grateful to my parents who chose a good husband for me,” she says.
They have overcome countless difficulties and challenges over the past fifty years.
Her husband, Peter Nguyen Duc Toan, was twice sent to jail and re-education camps in the 1960s-1970s for religious activities, including protecting church properties. He was among many priests, religious and laypeople who suffered persecution under the communists.
Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the communist regime prohibited religions and particularly targeted Christians. Christians formed 75 percent of the people who fled the country to avoid persecution.
Since the economic revival of 1986, Christians began to see a revival but many say government policies still target Christian and they are generally perceived as a threat because their past support to colonial French and war-rival Americans.
But Toan never gave up. In the early 1990s, he gathered local people to erect a wooden bell tower at Nghia Lo Church and prevented the authorities from destroying it. He was sentenced to seven more years in jail and was released in 1998.
Toan, who used to work as a carpenter, says his wife took good care of their children. She would take a bus to visit him in prison, 50 kilometers away, every three months.
“She gave me food and medicine and encouraged me to overcome difficulties in prison so that I could return home,” he recalls.
The 83-year-old remains deeply indebted to her for showing strong faith, and making sacrifices for him and their four children.
“I often shed tears for our children who had to eat rice mixed with sweet potatoes and cassava, sorghum, and wild vegetables for years,” Tam says while recalling how she would lie to them that she was full so they could have their fill.
After Toan’s release from prison, they left the children in the care of relatives and moved to work for the state-run Nam Bung Forestry Plantation, 50 kilometers away.
The couple volunteered to teach the workers but they were soon banned by the authorities who suspected them of evangelizing people.
Of course, they regularly recited prayers and also encouraged other Catholics to practice the faith.
“Our family has survived until now, which is a miracle thanks to our trust in God and Mother Mary,” Tam says while acknowledging the many kind-hearted people who helped them in difficult times.
Bringing up children as real Catholics
Toan is frank enough to admit that as a former seminarian he "isn’t good at earning money” but his wife has “never complained.”
He says they sometimes quarrel but it’s mostly about the ways they could help their children deal with problems in their lives.
Their toughest moment was when they learnt that one of their daughters was arrested on drug trafficking charges. Then, when the youngest daughter was abandoned by her husband.
"But we quickly make up with one another by praying the rosary together in front of the altar and asking the Virgin Mary for reconciliation between us. Then I apologize to her first,” he said.
Their eldest daughter, Mary Nguyen Thi Phuong Cham, said her parents “set a shining example of trusting in divine providence and serving as her rock” when she was imprisoned for years for drug trafficking.
She remembers her mother regularly visiting her in prison and praying fervently for deliverance.
“That touched me a lot. After being released from prison, I was determined to turn over a new leaf,” the 52-year-old mother of three said.
Cham said her youngest sister was abandoned by her husband, who abandoned Catholicism to marry another woman.
“With the full backing of our family, my sister could overcome the crisis. She decided not to remarry so she could bring up her two children well and spend time doing charity work for parishes,” she said.
Cham said her parents always encourage them “to be true to God under all circumstances and bring up children to pursue the Christian faith and pure altruism.”
Mary Tran Thi Tam (left) and her friends celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival for Hmong children at Ban Lenh subparish last year. (Photo: UCA News)
Leading a contented life
Tam and Toan look after each other as their children live far away from them but are happy to see their 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren through social media.
Most evenings, they interact with their brood, discussing their health and work issues, listening to their joys and sorrows, and encouraging them to pray to God.
“We are proud that we have nothing to give our children other than the Catholic faith and family values. We hope they will pass them to the next generations,” Tam says.
Their children are well off today and send them 20 million dong (US$830) per month as a way to show their filial piety.
“We donated 8 million dong for the construction of the Nghia Lo Church, and continue to help people in need,” Tam said.
The new two-story church is likely to be completed in 2027 and will replace the old dilapidated structure.
The 118-year-old parish serves 1,500 Catholics who had no resident priests for 44 years starting in 1964 when the resident priest was expelled. Many parish members were imprisoned and suffered restrictions on religious activities.
Authorities have eased restrictions in recent years and Vietnam’s diplomatic links with the Vatican has witnessed a considerable thaw in recent months.
Pope Francis in a letter in September wrote to Vietnam’s 7 million Catholics after an agreement was signed to have a residential Vatican representative in Hanoi. This has made Catholics look forward to the new church building's completion even more.
In 2017, the couple visited the Holy Land and celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary in the land where Jesus lived.
“With the once-in-lifetime visit to the Holy Land, we see that our marriage is blessed by God and our faith is also strengthened,” Tam says.
“We'll try to spend the rest of our lives worshipping God, setting an example for younger people, and praying for people around the world to live in peace. That’s it,” Tam says while placing flowers on the altar.