Phoenix Vietnamese Catholics will have a place to worship in their native language upon the completion of Vietnamese Martyrs Church

For months, I thought it was a Chinese restaurant. Good, I'd think as I drove each morning past the grand, pagoda-like monster being erected at 29th Avenue and Northern. The spring rolls at Golden Dragon suck.

Then the crosses went up.

Oh, I thought. A monastery. Or a Buddhist temple! As it turned out, the folks who will inhabit this structure once it's finished will be serving not moo shu pork, but the body and blood of Christ.

Somehow, a Vietnamese Catholic church never occurred to me. In fact, I'm not sure I knew there were Vietnamese Catholics — enough of them to warrant such a colossal church on the west side, at least.

"The name of our church Vietnamese Martyrs Church," Rev. Joseph Nguyen explained when I called him. Vietnamese martyrs was another new one on me, but Father explained about the 18th-century persecution of the Catholic Vietnamese, whose religion was not sanctioned by their government, which resulted in the murder of more than 100,000 of the missionary-trained Catholics in Vietnam. Today, he says, 117 of those slaughtered have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church; Father Joseph's church was founded in honor of these martyrs.

I agreed to meet Father Joseph at the better-than-half-built church, and while I waited for him to finish a series of cell phone calls, I wandered the property. The façade, which faces Northern Avenue and will be flanked by giant gilded dragons, features a massive arch framed by smaller arches on either side. Each of the building's three stories has a separate roof, peaked with swoopy points that shelter octagonal windows and towering pillars that I was surprised to note are made mostly from Styrofoam and lengths of sheet metal. Despite the gargantuan silver cross crowning the peak of the roof, the overall effect is not so much Catholic Church as Grauman's Chinese Theater.

"The design a mix of story from Bible and building of our culture," Father said, finally off the phone and headed toward me. I thought, Do I genuflect? But, I figured, he took three phone calls while I stood in an un-air-conditioned vestibule; all bets were off.

"We build this church because we want to practice faith in our own tongue," Father said in his broken English. "We cannot express belief in God if we cannot worship Him in our language."

Since the founding of their church in 2004, parishioners of Vietnamese Martyrs have been renting a hall at Most Holy Trinity Church on Seventh Street; now, they have their own big, gold-encrusted place of worship. Or they will, if they can scrape up enough money to finish its construction. Every dime of the $4 million spent so far has come from Vietnamese Martyr parishioners, but six months short of completion, the church coffers are empty.

The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has been of little help, offering only to loan Father Joseph the $1 million he figures he'll need to complete construction. "But I don't want this amount," he told me. "Hard to raise money after church is built, and then we never be able to pay back Diocese."

Without the extra dough, Oakland architect Anthony Pham's round altar carved with the Last Supper won't be realized; his pair of mammoth golden dragons will never happen.

"Two big dragon out front," Father Joseph told me, pointing toward a row of brick houses facing Northern Avenue. "They tell people, 'God lives here. Come inside and see.'"

Maybe someday.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela