Of all the churches on the Texas coast battered by Hurricane Harvey, one of the hardest hit is St. Peter Catholic Church in Rockport. As it happens, St. Peter is the heart and soul of Aransas County’s large Vietnamese population.
“This used to be our church. I haven’t been inside to see the devastation,” said Leah Oliva, a catechist and secretary there, as she gingerly stepped over broken glass and clumps of insulation.
A gulf breeze wafted through a gaping hole in the east wall. Most of the stained-glass windows were blasted away–somehow St. Martin de Porres survived. The ninth Station of the Cross—Jesus falls a third time—lay shattered on the floor.
The hymnals and prayerbooks were swollen and discolored in the pews, where women once sat on the left and men on the right in conservative Vietnamese tradition. The massive wooden crucifix suspended over the altar was undisturbed–a miracle, says the parishioners who’ve seen it.
This popular fishing village, with its famous oak trees, looks like it was fed into a shredder. But the cohesion and resilience of this coastal Vietnamese-American community, which numbers about a thousand, may help it recover from the storm’s destruction.
Vietnamese immigrants who relocated on Gulf Coast have faced adversity before, having arrived here 42 years ago after the fall of South Vietnam with very little. In the early days, they worked on shrimp boats. Leah Oliva came to Texas from Saigon when she was six.
“When they came here, in order to get themselves up and running, to actually build a boat, they went into their family nucleus to borrow money instead of going outside somewhere else,” she said. “They borrowed money from each other and then they repaid it.”
With the Gulf shrimp industry in gradual decline, most Vietnamese-Americans sold their boats over the years. They opened nail salons, got teaching certificates and engineering degrees, and built bait houses.
Assessing the damage
Sunlight streamed through a hole in the roof of the Fulton Harbor Bait Stand onto empty tanks of croakers, piggies, and mullet. The owners are Long Nyugen and his wife Nelda Salazar, who claim to be the only mixed couple in town.
“At Christmas we give eggrolls and tamales, a half dozen of each,” she says, laughing.
They are still assessing the damage to their business.
“The pilings on the bottom might be damaged,” Salazar said, wearing an “I Survived Hurricane Harvey” t-shirt.
Nguyen added, “We’re gonna start all over. This building belongs to the (county) navigation district. If they supply me all the materials, I’ll supply the labor.”
As for rebuilding the Vietnamese community, Nguyen said Father Tran is the only leader who can guide them through the difficult years ahead. “It’s up to the preacher,” he said, “He’s the one who can pull everybody together.”
“A population that overcomes obstacles”
So it was with the large Vietnamese population in New Orleans East after Hurricane Katrina. In the past 12 years, almost all have returned, the incidence of PTSD is low, and people are working again. After the storm, Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church was a central gathering place for organizational meetings and distribution of supplies. Moreover, the parish priest emerged as a leader.
“They fared great by all standard measures of recover,” said Mark Vanlaningham of Tulane University, who has studied the recovery of Vietnamese in New Orleans. He said the elders had the 1975 immigrant experience as a lense to view the calamity of Katrina.
“(They said) we’re a group that’s going to make it. We’re a population that overcomes obstacles, and I think that self concept played a really big role and gave them a collective self confidence that they’re going to make it through (Katrina),” Vanlaningham said.
The plucky Vietnamese community on the Texas coast may have this advantage as well, but for the fact that their church has been destroyed.
“It tests our faith”
“The hurricane is testing our faith in God,” said Father Tran, walking through the ruins of his mobile home rectory next door. “I went through the war in Vietnam. I was 9 years old. I saw dead bodies everywhere. After the war we survived every day, so yes, it tests our faith.”
He said they plan to reconstruct St. Peter from the foundation up, but the diocese has only begun to bring in appraisers to calculate the damages. The aging Vietnamese congregation is devastated by the loss of their spiritual home. “My biggest concern is how to rebuild the church for the people,” said Father Tran. “They have lost a lot and are disappointed.”