ARLINGTON -- Grandeur counts when building a Vietnamese church, especially when the current place of worship is a converted Food Lion grocery store.
"A church's size and quality is basically the best of everything the people can offer to God," said Khiet Nguyen, whose architectural firm designed the 2,000-seat Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in east Arlington. "A Food Lion church is not good enough. We hope this is good enough."
One thing the church leadership is sure of: When the granite structure, 801 E. Mayfield Road at Collins Street, is dedicated and consecrated at 10 a.m. Saturday, it will be the largest-capacity Vietnamese Catholic church in the U.S.
And according to the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, it will be the largest of the 90 Catholic churches in the diocese's 28-county North Texas region.
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The congregation, which in three years has raised all but $1.5 million of the church's $6.5 million price -- the rest is on loan from the diocese -- spared little expense in providing a taste of the homeland for those who came to the U.S. as refugees.
The architecture of the 29,000-square-foot church features a 75-foot bell tower visible from Interstate 20, and the floor, walls, statues and altars were cut and carved in Vietnam from 750,000 pounds of granite and marble. The smooth, glossy pews were crafted in Vietnam from American oak.
High and low on the interior walls are rows of stained-glass portraits of patron saints along with scenes depicting capture or execution of the 117 Catholic martyrs who died in Vietnam in the 19th century and were canonized as saints by Pope John Paul II. Marble statues lining the church exterior and parking lot re-create those images.
"Since we are away from our country, we wanted to bring the materials and pictures to tell the story," said the Rev. Polycarp Duc Thuan, pastor of the parish the past four years.
Most of the 6,000-member congregation emigrated from Vietnam. And many, like Thuan, fled the brutal communist regime during the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when waves of desperate refugees hurriedly piled into rickety boats and set themselves adrift.
Thuan found himself crowded into a 60-foot boat with 100 refugees and almost no supplies.
"It happened so quickly. We just had some water and some instant noodles," Thuan said. "When we left, we didn't know exactly where we were going."
They were rescued by a U.S. ship and taken to the Philippines. Soon they were ferried to America, where they struggled with language and job barriers as they tried to adapt to a new culture.
Early on, the Vietnamese Catholic community in Arlington consisted of about a dozen families that attended St. Matthew Catholic Church in southeast Arlington, Thuan said.
The community grew to more than 500 families by 1997, prompting then-Bishop Joseph Delaney to establish the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic parish in 2000.
About 3,500 members attend the four weekend Masses in the converted grocery store sanctuary, which seats 980 people and shares a parking lot with the new church on the 12-acre property.
"This is impressive because these folks came to this country several decades ago with nothing on their backs," Pat Svacina, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, said as he marveled at the towering sanctuary. "Now they're honoring God for what he's given them by building this church in thanksgiving for him."
Parish leaders said they weren't concerned that the church's size and opulence would price it beyond the community's means.
Those features provided powerful motivation for contributors. The average family donated $3,000, many taking advantage of a five-year payment plan.
"There are many old people who would rather sacrifice their meal and give money to build this church," Nguyen said. "To build a church is hard to explain. It's bigger than life."