Members Commemorate 50th Anniversary of the Dedication of Vietnam for Gospel Preaching

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 17 November 2016

A meeting at the chapel in Vietnam.  Photo by Thao Huy Tran.

Article Highlights

  • Last May, government leaders in Vietnam granted formal recognition to the Church.
  • Vietnamese members gathered for the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s dedication.
  • The gathering celebrated the Church’s short but rich history in Vietnam.

“I seek only to call your attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war.” —President Gordon B. Hinckley

It’s been a joyous year for Latter-day Saints in Vietnam—and for many other returned missionaries, LDS servicemen and women, and emigrants whose lives are forever connected to that southeast Asian land.

Last May, government leaders in Vietnam granted formal recognition to the Church. And just days ago, several Vietnamese members and their friends gathered in Taylorsville, Utah, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Vietnam for the preaching of the gospel. Several members of the original Saigon Branch attended, along with returned missionaries who were first assigned to labor in Vietnam.

The gathering celebrated the Church’s relatively short yet rich history in Vietnam—and allowed attendees to marvel at the hope and possibilities of a nation often defined by conflict and suffering.

“Already, the work is progressing,” said Thao Tran, a native of Vietnam and war refugee who joined the Church and served a mission after making a home in the United States.

The Church arrives in Vietnam

The gospel arrived in Vietnam amidst the misery of conflict. Latter-day Saint military personnel such as Virgil Kovalenko, a U.S. Air Force officer, worshipped with fellow members in servicemen’s groups across what was then South Vietnam. A small chapel was even built at the Bien Hoa Air Base.

The American servicemen were soon joined by Vietnamese people they had befriended and invited to their Sabbath services. Soon there were baptisms. Those small groups offered spiritual respite and peace to civilians and servicemen alike.

“Some of those services were among the most spiritual experiences of my life,” said Brother Kovalenko, who served as a group leader in Bien Hoa.

An Apostle’s prayer of dedication doubled as evidence that the Lord knew and loved His children in Vietnam.

On October 30, 1966, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided over a gathering of 200 members on the rooftop of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel. Elder Hinckley was joined by Elder Marion D. Hanks of the Seventy.

Following his closing remarks, Elder Hinckley followed a spiritual prompting to dedicate Vietnam for the preaching of the gospel under authorization previously given by Church President David O. McKay.

“We have seen in other parts of Asia the manner in which thou hast turned the hand and the work of the adversary to the good and the blessing of many of Thy children,” prayed Elder Hinckley. “And now we call upon Thee at this time that Thou wilt similarly pour out Thy Spirit upon this land.”

Elder Hinckley would share his experiences in Vietnam at the April 1968 general conference. The Apostle spoke of the complexities surrounding the Vietnam War, then added:

“I seek only to call your attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war—namely, the establishment of a bridgehead, small and frail now; but which somehow, under the mysterious ways of God, will be strengthened, and from which someday shall spring forth a great work affecting for God the lives of large numbers of our Father’s children who live in that part of the world. Of that I have a certain faith.”

Members stay strong

Terrible hardships awaited the Vietnamese Saints.

On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell and members of the first Saigon Branch were scattered. About half were evacuated from Vietnam and were initially relocated to Camp Pendleton, California. The other half remained in Vietnam.

There was no contact between the Vietnamese members and contacts in Church headquarters until 1982 when Brother Kovalenko received a letter from a woman he had home taught in Vietnam named Sister Tran Thi Xuan.

Her letter prompted Brother Kovalenko and other LDS servicemen who had been stationed in Vietnam to establish an organization that would make contact with LDS Vietnamese families and, if possible, bring them to the United States. The group made several trips to Vietnam, providing priceless opportunities to once again worship alongside their Vietnamese friends.

In 1985, the first sacrament meeting in a decade was held in Vietnam. President Hinckley’s shepherding connection to Vietnam did not end with his 1966 dedicatory prayer. He returned, this time as President of the Church, in 1996 to rededicate the land for the preaching of the gospel.

Many Vietnamese members from those first days of the Church there remained strong. Some immigrated to the United States and would share the gospel with countrymen in their native tongue. Converts such as Brother Tran have watched their own children serve missions to Vietnam.

Vietnam today

Meanwhile, two of the original missionaries sent to Vietnam from the Hong Kong Mission between 1973 and 1975 now serve as mission presidents in the region. James L. Christensen, one of the first elders to arrive in Saigon in 1973, now presides over the Cambodia Mission. Another returned missionary to Saigon, Lewis Hassell, is the president of the Vietnam Hanoi Mission.

A half-century after Elder Hinckley offered his initial dedicatory prayer, Apostles again visited Vietnam. On May 31, Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—along with Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Presidency of the Seventy—participated in a ceremony during which government leaders granted recognition to the Church (see Church News, June 3, 2016). The event signaled hope for the next 50 years in Vietnam.

“May there be peace, prosperity, and happiness for families and individuals across this great country of Vietnam is my hope and my prayer and blessing today,” said Elder Cook.

General Authorities of the Church visit with members in Vietnam. Photo by Thao Huy Tran.

Some of the first missionaries called to serve in Vietnam. Photo by Thao Huy Tran.

President Gordon B. Hinckley visits Vietnam. Photo by Thao Huy Tran.

A Primary class in Vietnam. Photo by Thao Huy Tran.

Thach family photo, by Thao Huy Tran.

LDS chapel in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, 1965 to 1975. Photo by Thao Huy Tran.