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Now, a story of a little American town transformed each year for one weekend. Carthage, Missouri, has a rich legacy of as mining town, with the grand Victorian homes to prove it, and the Civil War battle was fought there in 1861. But for the past 30 years, the most remarkable thing about Carthage, Missouri, is a pilgrimage by Vietnamese Americans Catholics.

Tim Metcalf of member station KRPS has our story.

TIM METCALF: Carthage, Missouri, is a quiet town of about 13,000. Every August, though, the population here swells by a factor of five, when tens of thousands of Vietnamese American Catholics come to celebrate what are called Marian Days.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

METCALF: They'd come to the campus of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a Vietnamese order of priests and brothers that maintains a provincial house in Carthage.

A 30-foot stone statue depicting the Virgin Mary welcomes visitors here. In one arm, she holds a baby Jesus; with the other, she reaches for the hand of a Vietnamese child. The figure symbolizes the aid many Vietnamese Catholics believe they received from Mary when they fled South Vietnam after it fell up to the Communist in 1975.

At the end of the Vietnam War, several Catholic brothers and priests immigrated to the U.S. and were eventually resettled in Carthage. Brother Thomas Dien(ph) is the secretary of the order here, which was founded in Vietnam in 1955.

Mr. THOMAS DIEN (Secretary, Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix): In Vietnam, we're being - still being persecuted, whether people know it or not, whether it's on the news or not. People are still being persecuted for their religion. It's a blessing to be able to profess your faith openly in America.

METCALF: The Fatima Prayer, which instructs Catholics to give devotion to Mary, pray the rosary and amend one vice, is the basis for Marian Days. At 7 p.m. each day, thousands of worshipers gather on the lawn. Approximately 200 bishops, priests and brothers conduct a service wearing full vestments in the sweltering summer heat and humidity.

(Soundbite of chanting)

METCALF: Peter and Navu Nguyen(ph) have been making the pilgrimage from Fort Worth, Texas, every August since 1988. This year, they brought along their three children, all under the age of 4. Peter Nguyen says part of the attraction of Marian Days is gathering with fellow Vietnamese.

Mr. PETER NGUYEN (Pilgrim; Resident, Fort Worth, Texas): This is something that we can learn more about how to cope with life in America.

METCALF: The influx of 60,000 people can strain the town's resources. Navu Nguyen says that while many residents seemed leery at first, they're more receptive with each passing year.

Ms. NAVU NGUYEN (Pilgrim; Resident, Fort Worth, Texas): You can see the changes over the years. Campgrounds have grown so much. As we come along, I mean, you see it. I mean, they actually have people putting their signs up saying that camp here. It's free. You can use our showers and our restrooms, and stuff like that. So it's grown quite a bit. So I mean, Carthage, as a city, you know, a whole - has been really receptive to us.

METCALF: When Marian Days began in 1977, there were just a few hundred participants. While the town's population has swelled this weekend, Carthage will soon settle back into its normal routines until next August when the spirit of Marian Days once again draws Vietnamese American Catholics from across the county.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Metcalf.

LYDEN: We hear now from a Vietnamese American who has attended many Marian Days festivals, Quang Nguyen. He helps send two busloads of parishioners from Minneapolis. His parish is St. Ann/St. Joseph Hien. He's from Vietnam originally and joins us now.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. QUANG NGUYEN (Pilgrim, Carthage, Missouri): Hi.

LYDEN: What role does the Virgin Mary play specifically in the Vietnamese Catholic Church? How is she revered by Vietnamese?

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: The Vietnamese consider Mary as a mother and similar to Lordy(ph) or in Mexico, for example, but the Vietnamese people have their own histories of struggles through wars, through famines. And so, she appeared to us back in Red(ph), the city of La Vang. So she is the intercessor between us people on Earth and our Father in heaven.

LYDEN: The intercessor.

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: The intercessor. That's correct.

LYDEN: It seems from what we've heard about Marian Days in Carthage, Missouri, that the experience of being Catholic in Vietnam and fleeing the country, particularly fleeing after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, has reinforced the faith of a lot of Vietnamese Catholics coming to America. Is that true for yourself?

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: That is true. I left with my families back in 1977, Easter Sunday night.

LYDEN: Easter Sunday night, just two years after the war.

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: Correct. And we fled by boat. At that time, people consider us as boat people. And we were on the ocean for - I can't remember how many days, but there were sort of a lot of sad stories out there, about the whole trip but we finally got picked up by a Japan oil tanker.

LYDEN: Did your boat almost not make it?

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: A couple of times. If it hasn't been for the tanker, we would have, for sure, capsized because not long after the tank picked us, there was a huge storm and we could see from the command center down the ship that the top of the tanker is completely covered with storm. And so in a way, I believe that someone above is guiding us through this process and give us a second chance to life. And I'm looking at it as a way to give thanks and be appreciate of this second chance in America.

LYDEN: Quang Nguyen lives in Minnesota and he has often attended the Marian Days festivals in Carthage, Missouri. Quang Nguyen, thank you very much for sharing your story with us today.

Mr. Q. NGUYEN: Thank you.

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