By Father Steven Perzan

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Good weather and brilliant sunshine brought record crowds to the St. Helena Community Tet Celebration at Cardinal Dougherty High School, Sunday, Feb. 8.

Msgr. Joseph Trinh, pastor of St. Helena Church, said the initial purpose of the celebration was to reconnect the Vietnamese community to their homeland where Tet is the New Year’s feast. “Tet is fun because it is everyone’s birthday,” he said. “Everyone, no matter when they were born, gets a year older on Tet!”

The idea for the Philadelphia Tet celebration has evolved slowly from its beginnings 17 years ago. At that time Msgr. Trinh was a newly ordained priest serving the Church in the Kensington area. Seeing the needs of a growing Vietnamese population, he began searching for a way to raise funds to help the Vietnamese Catholic community.

Money to pay for the Tet celebration came through the selling of chances, games of luck and children’s activities. The celebration never fails to reach out to embrace some good cause. This year was no exception: a special table was set up to raise funds for a children’s school for the blind in Vietnam.

The Tet celebration has grown throughout the years. Eleven years ago, “out of necessity,” Msgr. Trinh made the decision to move the event from the St. Helena neighborhood to Cardinal Dougherty High School, where it now fills the school’s cavernous cafeteria.

Family and culture remain central to the celebration but intergenerational changes are taking place. While most still eat with chop sticks, some have taken to the fork and spoon. The most popular food items remain those with a Vietnamese flair, and the customary noodle soup, “pho,” is still the undisputed favorite. But there is growing taste for Klondike bars, soda and chips.

This year’s celebration included several performances by the Lion Dance Group in fanciful dragon costumes. This dance group, composed of several young men, is dedicated to the preservation of the ancient art of the lion dance in the Vietnamese community. The dance is a test of strength and demands physical skills.

With the Tet celebration taking place on a Sunday, provisions were made for Mass to be held on site. At this year’s event, a temporary altar of great elegance was constructed on the auditorium stage. It came complete with a side altar to the Blessed Mother and aptly rendered the Catholic faith traditions of the Vietnamese people.

Msgr. Trinh served as principal celebrant of the Mass; his younger brother, Father Quan Trinh, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Calvary, was the homilist. Concelebrating the Mass were Father Joseph Watson, director of the archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, and Fathers Peter Nguyen, Quan Tran and Tien Hoang.

After transforming the area back into a stage, the “Day of Tet” ended with rousing Vietnamese musical performances by My Hanh and Thuy Tien.

Father Stephen Perzan is parochial vicar at St. Helena Parish in Philadelphia.