Father Joseph Nguyen (altar left) and Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo at the Mass at the dedication of the church with priests from the Diocese, New York, North Carolina and Vietnam. photo credit: Truc Tran

By Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Renovating a synagogue into a church for a bustling Catholic parish was a labor of love as members of Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Hampton rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to turn the building into a new house of worship – their home, as many parishioners said. Renovating a synagogue into a church for a bustling Catholic parish was a labor of love as members of Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Hampton rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to turn the building into a new house of worship – their home, as many parishioners said.

Father Joseph Nguyen, the parish’s pastor, said the new church will impact the parish greatly because their old church and its parking lot were too small. Likewise Jimmy Nyguyen, chair of the building committee, hypothesized that the cramped worship space and inadequate parking lot discouraged some people to join because they felt there was not enough room for them.

Ella and Eva Nguyen and their mother Phung Dinh enjoy the banquet following Mass.

Parishioner Thuan Ha, speaking through a translator, said he is “very happy” to have the new church because its larger worship space and social hall meet the needs of the growing community. Other parishioners echoed his sentiment.

“I think this is going to gather the whole community together,” said Truc Tran.

The first Catholic Vietnamese family arrived in Hampton Roads in 1975 following the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, Mr. Nguyen said. More followed, prompting the creation of Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Hampton. The parish later established a separate site in Norfolk due to the often congested traffic on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel which connects Hampton and Newport News to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

The Hampton division celebrated Masses in various Catholic churches on the Peninsula until it moved into its own building on LaSalle Avenue in 1992. It had 54 families at the time, but through the years it has more than doubled in size to 135 families. The worship space, however, held a mere 300, and the parish hall was too small for most activities. For the past three years the parish has been “praying hard for a miracle” that they could have a larger building, Mr. Nguyen said. That miracle came when fundraisers, personal donations and a loan allowed them to purchase and renovate a former synagogue nearby on Whealton Road last July.

The synagogue in Hampton cost nearly $1.3 million, and renovations would have cost another $1.5 million had it not been for the numerous volunteers and for savvy purchases which knocked the price tag down to about $700,000, Mr. Nguyen said.

The synagogue was renovated extensively to make way for a larger worship space, a chapel, 10 classrooms, a confession room, a rectory, office space and a parish hall with an adjoining kitchen. The worship space can now seat up to 540 people, the chapel can accommodate 30, the parish hall, 450. The church parking lot has ample space. The parish hall will give the church room to have functions. Because marble is far less expensive in Vietnam than here, the church’s stonework, including the altars in the worship space and smaller chapel, were specially made in Vietnam, Mr. Nguyen said.

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo dedicated the church on Aug. 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In his homily, he noted the parish was experiencing three transfigurations that day: the transfiguration of the building and grounds, the transfiguration of Christ and the transfiguration of ourselves.

Reminding the congregation that Judaism is the foundation of the Christian faith, Bishop DiLorenzo said that transitioning the synagogue where Jews once worshiped to a church where Christians will worship is symbolic of that ancestry.

Front from left: Thu Nguyen, Ethan Nguyen and Ashley Thai celebrate the completion of their new church at a banquet following the first Mass there.

Building Our Lady of Vietnam was a community effort. Nearly every parishioner from young children through adult helped renovate the building, said parishioner Theresa Trinh. Tasks were age appropriate. Young children gave water bottles to workers, and adults did such jobs as painting and landscaping. Some volunteers came before work; others during lunch and others worked until the wee hours of the morning. And some helped when they could work it into their schedules.

Because of so many volunteers, the church will feel like home, she said.

“Everybody put their heart and soul into it,” she said.
Sunday Masses are at 8:30 a.m. and are bilingual.

Sunday Masses are at 8:30 a.m. and are bilingual.