Dream fulfilled: Grotto dedicated at St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photos Courtesy St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh

The Vietnamese devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is proudly displayed in a new grotto dedicated and blessed by Archbishop Gregory Aymond Aug. 18 at St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh Parish in Marrero.

“It is a very long tradition for Vietnamese,” said Phan Vuong, project manager and parish finance council president, brought to New Orleans when his family fled Vietnam in 1975. “The mother is a significant image we hold close to our heart. … Vietnamese Catholics went through difficult times, and we always go to the Blessed Mother for comfort, blessing and protection.”

Third pastor made it happen

Father Peter Tran, the current pastor, said St. Agnes was originally a mission of Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish and named Immaculate Mary sometime in the 1980s. In 1995, it was created as a personal parish to serve the needs of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians on the West Bank and renamed St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh after one of the first female Vietnamese martyrs. Even then, parishioners desired to build a grotto honoring Mary.

In 2001, when a new Parish Life Center and outdoor stage and altar were built and dedicated, a statue of the Blessed Mother was placed on a rock pedestal, with St. Bernadette Soubirous kneeling before her as she did when Mary appeared to her in Lourdes, France, in 1858.

Fundraising campaigns, however, hadn’t brought in enough money for the grotto, and Hurricane Katrina further delayed the project.

When Father Tran became pastor in 2013, he thought the timing was right to resume the grotto, and fundraising began in earnest.

“We wanted to build something different,” Father Tran said. He followed a grotto design of former pastor, Father Vu Han, in which rock rose naturally skyward but was affordable and not too big.

The parish set project requirements: a budget limit of $500,000; money would come only from donations for the grotto, not parish funds; and 100% of money would be raised before the project started.

By mid-2018, the parish had raised approximately $300,000, had $80,000 from previous grotto campaigns and $100,000 in a savings account with the archdiocese. The archdiocese then gave its approval to build. (At the dedication, approximately $100,000 was raised, Vuong added, so the grotto is paid off completely.)

Vuong said he traveled to Vietnam, where a model was cast of the grotto that the parish had envisioned. Cemrock Landscapes Inc. from Arizona was chosen to build the grotto, using the model as a guide for the 24-foot tall grotto with a small waterfall. It is painted gray to simulate natural rock.

Ground was broken on the grotto project on Dec. 30, 2018. It came in $15,000 under budget at $485,545. Striker Construction Services designed the concrete foundation and completed all concrete work, and Crescent City Landscaping Inc., finished with plants at end of June.

The original outdoor statues of Mary and St. Bernadette, beaten up by weather over the years, were restored by Darcie Flinn and reinstalled in the new grotto, Vuong said.

“We are very grateful to have our archbishop give the blessing and dedicate the grotto to our Blessed Mother,” Vuong said. “The grotto shows our devotion to Mother Mary, our thanks for giving us much protection and blessings over the years. This was the wish of so many people (some have passed away), and it was made a reality.”

Complete Holy Family

To add to the grotto, the parish will install a hand-carved white marble statue of St. Joseph holding toddler Jesus’ hand and hand-carved granite benches.

“You will feel the closeness and warmth of the Holy Family because the three of them will be in that garden,” Vuong said. “Our primary objective was to build the grotto for the Blessed Mother, but we wanted to include Joseph and Jesus so you could sit down in the garden and pray. Hopefully, it will bring closeness of the Holy Family and instill the love and value for family in our life.”

As a special devotion to Mary, parishioners will gather at the grotto every Saturday after 6 p.m. Mass and pray and ask for special petitions to Mary.

Father Tran was overjoyed with Archbishop Aymond’s grotto blessing.

“We are so happy because we looked forward to it for a long time,” Father Tran said. “Finally, after three pastors, we were financially able to build it.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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