To the accompaniment of gong and drum, Vietnamese Roman Catholics clothed in brightly colored, gold-embroidered dresses and black hats and tunics chanted their own special rendition of "Ave Maria" yesterday morning and celebrated the first mass at the Church of the Blessed Vietnamese Martyrs in Annandale.
The colorful ceremony marked the dedication of the first Vietnamese-run Catholic church in the United States and the first local church to embrace the 5,000 Roman Catholics among the Washington area's growing Vietnamese refugee population, which now numbers about 17,000
"I'm so happy.For four years we wish every day we can have a church of our own," said Anh Duy Hy, one of more than 500 Vietnamese immigrants at the modest, red-brick church on Annandale Road yesterday. "We thank God and the American people."
Since the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when Vietnamese started resettling in the Washington area in large numbers, the Roman Catholics among them who wanted to worship together -- and in their native tongue -- were forced to meet Sunday afternoons at different churches in the Arlington diocese.
They had only limited use of church property.
Finally, 12 days ago, the Vietnamese Catholic community here bought the old, two-story brick building from the Annandale Road Church of God for $135,000 and worked day and night to repair the structure and grounds.
"I came here every day after school to work on it," said 19-year-old Son Le. "We practically had to tear the place down. We had to fix the ceiling and paint and scrape everything."
Yesterday, when the Most Rev. Thomas J. Welsh, bishop of the Roman Catholic doicese of Arlington, dedicated the Church of the Blessed Vietnamese Martyrs, everything appeared in order.
Throughout the two-hour ceremony and mass in Vietnamese, hundreds of men, women and children stood quietly on the freshly mowed church lawn, responding to prayers and singing. Inside the church, five rows of folding chairs were added to the four rows of wooden pews to hold the overflow crowd. Many of the women and girls wore ao dais -- the traditional dress of Vietnamese women, high-necked tunics in bright pink, blue, yellow and white prints with gold and red borders -- worn with white or black trousers.
Sharing the altar with the bishop were seven priests, five of them Vietnamese.
The church's name, members of the parish noted, has nothing to do with the years of suffering during the war years of the last four decades. Rather, the Blessed Vietnamese Martyrs were 117 bishops, priests, catechists and laymen who were martyred in Vietnam between 1625 and 1929.
The church in Annandale opened in time for a Vietnamese religious holiday that honors these martyrs -- the Feast Day of the Martyrs on Sept. 2. But of most satisfaction to the hundreds of Vietnamese refugees on hand yesterday was the simple fact that they had a church of their own.
Now, instead of meeting at someone else's church and feeling rushed to clear the parking lot by 4:30 p.m., the Vietnamese of Northern Virginia, Washington and suburban Maryland have their choice of four masses during the day.
"We've had about 500 people attending our weekly mass in a building that seated only 200," said the Rev. Tran Duy Nhat, pastor of the new church. "Many of our people couldn't come at that time because they had to work on Sundays. Now they can attend mass on Saturday evening or different times on Sunday."
Nhat said the church basement will serve as a community center for the Vietnamese where they can learn English and renew friendships with fellow countrymen. He said the church also hopes to sponsor Southeast Asian refugees through the center.
"This morning we dedicated a place to worship, to give you your own special way to celebrate your Catholic faith in your own language," Bishop Welsh said. The parishioners responded with a gesture uncommon in church. They applauded heartily.