Vietnamese parishioners don’t let attack on church deter Christmas

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Damage is seen inside Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Portland, Ore., after a man drove his SUV into the empty church just after midnight on Dec. 24. On Christmas Eve parishioners picked up smashed pews and set up more than 1,000 folding chairs so worshippers could attend Christmas Mass. (CNS photo/courtesy Our Lady of Lavang Parish)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Members of Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Portland did not let an attack stall their Christmas observances.

Volunteers at the Vietnamese Catholic community gathered Christmas Eve, tools in hand, to repair their church, which had been seriously damaged when a man intentionally drove his SUV into the worship space and repeatedly crashed through the pews. In addition to the pews, walls and doors were heavily damaged.

By late afternoon, neat walls of plywood covered most of the damage and replaced one set of doors, folding chairs had replaced the pews, and children and teens were rehearsing for their parts in the Christmas Eve Masses, reported the Catholic Sentinel, archdiocesan newspaper.

See original story in the Catholic Sentinel for updated photos

A crew of 100 parishioners responded to the call for help from Fr. Ansgar Pham, pastor.

Parishioners young and old expressed surprise at what happened but held no ill will toward the person responsible. Young people suggested that the man had been angry. One woman said he must have been hurting.

According to police reports, Hieu John Phung, 35, rented an Acura SUV, then drove it through a locked gate and into the church after midnight early Dec. 24. Phung then phoned 911 to admit to the deed. The license plate and part of the grill had been found in the church, linking Phung to the vehicular mayhem.

Police charged Phung with criminal mischief, hit-and-run driving that resulted in property damage and criminal trespass. He was released and ordered to attend a court hearing Dec. 26, but did not appear because he had been picked up in Astoria, Oregon, and was hospitalized, apparently for mental health reasons, authorities said. His next court appearance is set for Jan. 9.

Parishioners said Phung, who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, is separated from his wife and two children, who attend faith formation classes at Our Lady of Lavang.

Fr. Pham told KOIN-TV the driver drove into the church in at least two separate spots, shattering walls, windows and knocking down doors.

Christmas Masses took place as planned, with joyful singing and dance.

“Please pray for us during this difficult time,” Fr. Pham told the television station.

“In about three hours a miracle of transformation happened,” Portland Auxiliary Bishop Peter L. Smith said in a Facebook post.

“Destroyed pews were removed, broken glass and destroyed entrances were cleaned up and temporary doors were installed to keep the cold out,” he wrote.

Parishioners neatly lined up more than 1,000 folding chairs. Members of neighboring St. Rose of Lima Church, including Father Matt Libra, pastor, came to help.

One parishioner was heard saying, “My faith is stronger because of this.”

“Christmas comes whether someone tries to deny us our joy,” said a Facebook post from the Archdiocese of Portland. “Our Lord reigns!”