Our Lady of La’ Vang is the central and national shrine of Vietnam, located approximately 55 miles from the former capitol Hue. The name is derived from a type of fern which used to grow in great quantities in the region.
During much of the 18th century, Vietnam was embattled in various struggles for power and domination. The northern regions of the kingdom fell under the authority of the lords of the Trinh family, while in the southern realm the Nguyen lords took power. As the 18th century drew toward a close, both of their rules where shaken and threatened by peasant uprisings and emerging rebel forces.
The strongest of the uprisings was led by the three brothers from Tay Son. In no time, they overthrew the Nguyen lords and defeated the Trinh lords to restore national unity for the first time since the decline of the Le dynasty. A Tay Son brother was enthroned to be King Quang Trung. In 1792 he passed away and left the throne to his son who became King Canh Thinh.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh continued his insurgency in trying to reclaim his throne. He sought refuge on Phu Quoc Island, where Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Behaine of the Society of Foreign Missions directed a seminary for youths from neighboring countries. The bishop persuaded him t seek help from King Louis XVI of France.
King Canh Thinh knew that Nguyen Anh received support from the French missionary, and worried that the Vietnamese Catholics would also endorse his reign. He began to restrict the practice of Catholicism in Vietnam. On August 17, 1798, King Canh Thinh issued an anti-Catholic edict and an order to destroy all Catholic churches and seminaries. A horrendous persecution of Vietnamese Catholics ensued and lasted until 1886. Even after Nguyen Anh succeeded in reclaiming his throne as King Gia Long (1802-1820), his three successors renewed the vehement campaign against Catholics. These emperors ordered horrific punishments from torture to death.
During this horrible persecution, many Catholics fled into the dense jungle forest in the central region of Vietnam near what is now known as Quang Tri. Here they suffered from the bitter cold, wild animals, great hunger and deadly sicknesses, and prepared themselves for martyrdom. At night they would gather into groups and pray in common, especially the Most Holy Rosary.
Unexpectedly, one night there appeared to all of them a beautiful Lady in a long cape, holding a Child in Her arms, with two angels at Her sides. The apparition was surrounded by numerous small twinkling lights. She presented Herself as the Mother of God, encouraged and consoled them, and gave them a special sign of Her maternal loving care. Our Lady told them to boil the fern leaves from the surrounding trees to use for medicine. She further promised that from that day on, all those who came to this place to pray would have their prayers heard, and their petitions granted.
After this first apparition, the Blessed Virgin continued to appear in the same place on numerous occasions, again to be witnessed by all who were present each time. Each time, She encouraged and consoled Her children, and confirmed their Faith. The people erected a makeshift altar and chapel to mark the spot.
After the persecution in 1802, the Catholics lef their jungle hiding place and returned to their villages. Word of the apparitions of Our Lady of La’ Vang spread among the people and out to other regions. Despite its desolate location in the high mountains, groups of people continued to find ways to penetrate the deep and dangerous jungle to obtain the promised intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The pilgrims came with axes, spears, canes, and drums to scare away the wild animals. They also carried flags, flowers, and rosaries. The pilgrimages continued every year, despite the religious persecutions.
Among many groups of Vietnamese Catholics that were burnt alive because of their Faith, was a group of 30 people who were seized after they came out of hiding in the forest of La’ Vang. At their request, their executions took them to the spot of the apparitions and killed them there. In 1885, the chapel was destroyed by anti-Catholic fanatics.
In 1886, after the persecution had officially ended, Bishop Gaspar ordered a church to be built in honor of Our Lady of La’ Vang. Because of its precarious location and limited funding, it took 15 years for the church to be completed. It was consecrated by the Bishop himself in a solemn ceremony that lasted from August 6th to August 8th, 1901, with over 12,000 people in attendance. The Bishop proclaimed Our Lady of La’ Vang to be the Protectress of the Catholics. In 1928, a larger church was built to accomodate the increasing number of pilgrims.
Over the years, the miraculous cures and conversions continued to multiply, were investigated by the Church, and validated. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin under the title of Our Lady of La’ Vang became stronger. In April of 1961, the Council of Vietnamese Bishops selected the holy church of La’ Vang as the National Sacred Marian Center. In August of 1962, Pope John XXIII elevated the church to the rank of a basilica. The Basilica of La’ Vang was nearly destroyed in 1972 during the Vietnam War, but was rebuilt to its former magnificence.
On June 19, 1988, Pope John Paul II, during the canonization ceremony for the 117 Vietnamese Martyrs, publicly and repeated recognized the importance and significance of Our Lady of La’ Vang, and expressed a desire to renovate the La’ Vang Basilica in commemoration of the of the coming 200th anniversary of the first apparition of Mary there.
With this completed, and over 100,000 pilgrims in attendance at La’ Vang in August 1998 for the 200th anniversary celebrations, the Holy Father said, “In visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of La’ Vang, Who is so loved by the Vietnamese faithful, pilgrims come to entrust to Her their joys and sorrows, their hopes and sufferings. In this way, they call on God and become intercessors for their families and nation, asking the Lord to infuse in the heart of all people feelings of peace, fraternity, and solidarity, so that all the Vietnamese will be more united every day in the construction of a world based on essential spiritual and moral values, where each one will be recognized because of his dignity as a son of God, and be able to also go in freedom and a son toward the Father of Heaven, ‘rich in Mercy’.”
During the celebration of the Marian Congress in Rome in the Jubilee Year 2000, $15,000 was donated to the Catholic Church in Vietnam to finish refurbishing the Basilica of La’ Vang. In the meantime, American Vietnamese Catholics are working with the Bishops in charge of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to try to establish a chapel to Our Lady of La’ Vang in this already magnificent cathedral.