May in traditional costume serves as a godmother at a baptism in Mai Yen Church in March. (Photo: supplied)

By UCA News reporter

July 12 2022

For Mary Song Thi May, a 32-year-old mother of two, her deprived childhood and difficult youth are a distant memory since she embraced Catholicism.

“I no longer feel wretched about life as Catholicism is the breath of life to me. Since I met God, I am quite determined to bring divine love to other poor people,” she says while adjusting her colorful ethnic attire.

Mary hails from Ho Sen, a village in the impoverished Hua Nhan commune, in northwestern Vietnam’s remote and mountainous Son La province, some 300 kilometers from Hanoi.

The Hmong woman makes it a point to visit local families in the evenings to tell them about a mighty God, who is better than nature gods, and the priests and lay Catholics from the local Mai Yen Parish, who extend material support to the needy.

“At first they have no clue what I am talking about, but after several visits they fully understand and ask me to take them to the priests,” she said. “I think it is God who opens their minds and shows them how to come to him.”

On weekends, she gathers local Catholic villagers to her home to say prayers in their native language as they speak little Vietnamese. They console one another, make donations to help people in need, send sick people to hospitals, and pray for good weather and crops.

Ho Sen village is a mission station with 24 Hmong families, half of whom converted to Catholicism in the past three years.

The Hmong people in Hua Nhan commune are among the poorest people in Vietnam who eke out a living by growing rice, plums, peach, tea, and other crops on the hills. They also raise cattle and poultry but lack food some parts of the year.

The families, with many children, live in wooden houses that often get damaged by hailstorms and floods. The living conditions are bad and they have little access to education and health care.

Whenever someone falls ill, the family borrows money to buy poultry or cattle and approaches a shaman to make offerings to gods in the hope of an often elusive cure.

May recalls her father died from illness when she was only four months old. When her mother remarried, she was forced to drop out of school as a fifth-grader to look after her younger siblings. She also did the housework, herded cattle, and worked on the farm to support the family.

She was barely 15 years old when she was “kidnapped for marriage” by a teenager who was in grade ten. “I was too young to know what love was,” she said.

A victim of an early marriage, May worked hard for years to support her husband until he graduated from college and started working for a government agency. “But he kicked me out of the house and did not even allow me to take my son,” she said.

Her husband remarried twice but both his other wives left him. Her son is now 13 years old.

A hapless May returned to live with her family and later married another man, Joseph Hang A Chinh from Ho Sen village. They have two children aged two and seven.

“My youth sank into deep misery for years, but now God loves me and blesses my happy family,” she said.

In 2018, when her daughter fell ill, May borrowed money and made offerings of chicken and pigs to the nature gods. But her child’s health continued to deteriorate.

A Catholic woman suggested she seek the help of Father Joseph Nguyen Tien Lien, the priest in Mai Yen Parish, in Mai Son district.

“The priest treated us with kindness and courtesy when we first met him. He helped take my child to the hospital and gave us money to pay for her medical treatment,” she remembers.

Father Lien also called on people in his parish to pray to Mother Mary for the child’s early recovery, she says, adding that since then, she has sent her children to hospitals for treatment instead of inviting witch doctors to make sacrificial offerings.

“Following Father Lien’s advice, we underwent a catechumen class for two weeks, in which we learned catechism and how to say prayers in Vietnamese and the Hmong language. After the course, we decided to convert and were baptized in June 2019,” she said.

Villagers began treating her with contempt for following a “false religion” and bringing bad luck. They even accused her of dividing the community as no one in the village followed Catholicism.

Her husband’s relatives kept their distance. Her father-in-law is a Protestant and other relatives have no religion. Catholicism was absolutely unknown to them.

“People began to change their attitude toward me and Catholicism slowly,” May said. “Over the past two years, 11 out of 24 families in the village have converted to the faith.”

Her husband Joseph said at first he and his relatives were upset about her conversion, which was perceived as being unfaithful to their ancestors and going against Hmong traditions.

“We gradually changed our outlook as my wife continued to take good care of our children and the extended family,” he said. “I could also see that Catholicism brings new hope and relieves our pain and suffering, so I decided to embrace it too.”

Chinh and his youngest child were baptized in 2020 and soon joined May in inviting Father Lien and other Catholics to visit their village and celebrate Mass at their home.

They also provided food and clothes for local people, prayed for the dead and venerated ancestors.

“I had no choice but to pray in tears and found great consolation from the priest and local Catholics. I felt really strong, brave and determined to be faithful,” May says.

Chinh says he is indebted to his wife for bringing the true religion to the village and tries his best to let her have time off from household chores and farm work to introduce all the villagers to it.

He takes his wife and children on an old motorbike to attend Mass in a church 26 kilometersfrom their house.

Back home, May also encourages local people to support their children’s studies and say no to early marriage. “They should marry when they reach their 20s according to law and for their own good,” she says.

She also tells villagers to visit hospitals instead of inviting shamans. “Many in the village have removed altars of ghost gods and have erected altars of God and Catholic saints in their houses after having embraced Catholicism,” May added.

Father Lien said Bishop Dominic Hoang Minh Tien of Hung Hoa baptized 90 Hmong villagers in March at his church, 20 of them from Ho Sen mission station.

He said he chooses May, who volunteers to work as an enthusiastic and smart missionary, to be the godmother of hundreds of Hmong converts so that they can follow her good example.

He appreciates her outstanding bravery and enormous efforts. “She is a special gift from God to bring His love to her people. We cannot work with the villagers without her,” he said.

The priest said May is among 20 lay missionaries from 20 mission stations in the two districts of Mai Son and Bac Yen.

He said evangelization work mainly depends on lay missionaries as local authorities still limit priests’ activities and the parish is not recognized by the government.

“They are who we rely on to introduce Christian values to their villagers and maintain a new communities’ religious activities,” the priest said.

Son La province is home to 12 ethnic groups with a total population of 1.3 million including 220,000 Hmong people. The province now has some 9,000 Catholics.

May says non-Catholic villagers are becoming interested in the religion and hold visiting priests in great respect.

“I try my best to spread the faith to my relatives and villagers.  I will be full of joy when all of them join the Church,” she says with a cheerful smile.

UCA News