Despite growing up in Missouri, I had not until very recently learned that one of the US’ largest Catholic events takes place in my home state. Turns out, sleepy Carthage, Missouri (2000 Census population: 12,668) is home every year to a three-day Vietnamese-American Catholic bonanza called Marian Days in early August. The event averages 50-70,000 people a year, and is believed to have drawn about 80,000 this year.
This seemed pretty surreal to me at first. If you were to ask me to draw up a mental image of summer festivals in southern Missouri, Vietnamese Catholic outdoors Masses in honor of Mary probably wouldn’t have been the first thing to pop into my head.
The event certainly has its annoyances and areas of concern. I could have lived without the thousands of balloons being paraded during Mass, and there’s always a risk with events like these that they become more about celebrating your ethnic identity than anything religious: call it St. Patrick’s Day Syndrome. But it’s hard to argue that the event doesn’t radiate a profound reverence even amidst all the fun and festivities:
One of the first questions I had when I heard about this was what the town’s reaction was. After all, Carthage is a small, largely white, largely Protestant town, and yet for 72 hours a year, it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and largely Vietnamese-American. Turns out, relations are apparently quite good. That’s according to both event organizers and city officials. Marian Days brings in tourist dollars, and the city takes care of its guests with classic Midwestern hospitality:
Marian Days also involves a year’s worth of planning for city officials such as Carthage Police Capt. Randee Kaiser.
With six police agencies involved, planning and preparing the community for Marian Days takes meetings and the pooling of resources. Roadblocks must be manned, cameras set up on the grounds and refreshments and communications between officers arranged.
That’s pretty standard-fare, I suppose, but I was struck by what the article mentioned next. Given that the town has a population of upwards of 15 thousand people, it doesn’t quite have the hotel space for 70 thousand visitors arriving at once, so the vast majority of the pilgrims sleep outside in tents. Turns out, the city of Carthage works with the townspeople to determine who is, and who isn’t, willing to let people camp out on their front lawns. That’s hospitality right there.
In any case, the festival itself looks amazing. Outdoor Masses, long processions, food, music, family, camping, etc. To draw tens of thousands of pilgrims to such an event speaks well of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American Catholic culture, which (along with many other immigrant enclaves) are doing their fair share to reawaken American Catholicism. Anyways, Whispers in the Loggia and the Catholic Key both have good coverage of these years event, and both blogs have incredible pictures and/or video which are alone worth the visit.