Monday, August 03, 2009

The "Days" Are Coming

It doesn't get the attention it deserves, but the coming weekend brings yet another year for one of Stateside Catholicism's largest gatherings: Marian Days, the Vietnamese-American celebration of faith and culture in Carthage, Missouri.

Begun in 1978 by an expat religious order that set up shop in the town of 15,000, the four-day, all-hours campout featuring food, processions, Masses, merchants and music attracts a crowd ranging from 60 to 80,000, making it the US church's second-biggest "family reunion" after the estimated 150,000 or so who descend on Chicagoland's Maryville each 12 December, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Despite its size and history, Marian Days first garnered wide attention only last year, after 17 pilgrims traveling from Houston were killed (and another 40 injured) when their Missouri-bound bus crashed near Dallas... even so, the weeks of preparations on the ground have become a "well-oiled machine" before the "65,000-person town ceremonially dropped in the center of Carthage" arrives Thursday, when the Days kick off with an open-air Pontifical Mass:
“[I]t’s quite an undertaking,” [Carthage Police Chief Greg] Dagnan admitted. “Luckily, (the celebrations) are usually very peaceful. We do a very good job with screening those who go in and out of the roadblocks.”

Ultimately, “It’s a religious festival,” Dagnan said, with a vast majority of the people here to worship and celebrate without causing trouble....

There will always be those who complain no matter what the cause — such folks are affectionately known by police officers the world over as CAVEmen (Complain Against Virtually Everything). For the most part, Carthage residents look forward to early August and an influx of 70,000 Vietnamese visitors. That’s because many Carthage families “adopt” the same Vietnamese families year after year.

“It’s gotten to the point to where it’s like a family reunion,” Dagnan said. “You’ll see houses with bathrooms open and bedrooms open and there’ll be Vietnamese families inside cooking up a meal for everyone. It’s pretty remarkable.”

So it’s not a clash of cultures, but an easy blending or mending of cultures.

Marian Days is very unique in that not a lot of towns Carthage’s size — roughly 15,000 — swells suddenly to 70,000 people camping inside tents on yards and street corners. Dagnan called it a “rarity.”

“And there’s very little complaining,” Dagnan said. “People here really look forward to it. Considering what an inconvenience it is, with the noise at night and the people camping out and not able to get into the driveway, but people here are excited for it.”
Since 2008's Days, the diaspora -- whose prolific contribution to priestly vocations 'round these parts has seen it dubbed the "New Irish" -- marked a milestone in its journey on these shores: the election of Anh Joseph Cao, a New Orleans Republican, as the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.

That said, even the new Congressman spent six years in the Jesuit novitiate.