Local Asian Catholics mark Lunar New Year with special prayers, Masses and dancing lions

February 28, 2023

Children from Ascension Chinese Mission lead a kung fu demonstration during the parish’s Chinese New Year celebration on Jan. 22 in Houston. At right, a young girl hands a hóngbāo, a red envelope synonymous with Lunar New Year, to a yellow lion dancer. Catholics at Ascension Chinese Mission joined others around the Archdiocese in marking the Lunar New Year last month. (photos courtesy of Meris Bridger/St. Francis de Sales Catholic School)

HOUSTON — Accompanied by a reverberating drumbeat from nearby thumping drums and a clashing cymbal, a trio of dancing lions coursed their way through crowded tables.

At one point, a yellow lion, its eyes blinking and body shivering with Pixar-esque realism, stopped its dance to greet a young girl wearing a shiny red cheongsam dress and “eat” her hóngbao, the red envelope synonymous with the Lunar New Year in most Asian cultures.

The colorful, if even sparkling, lion gleefully responded to her paper gift (which usually contains fresh, new paper dollar bills in varying denominations) with an eager shimmy and dance.

The parish’s annual event, finally back in full swing after quieter celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic, ushered in the Lunar New Year with a vibrant Jan. 22 celebration at Ascension Chinese Mission in Houston that marked the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit.

The gathering also celebrated the diaconate ordination anniversary of Deacon Paul Kiang, who was ordained to the permanent diaconate 20 years ago.

With quick punches, kicks and fierce sweepings of wooden sticks, young catechism students showed off their sharp martial arts and kung fu skills during a special exhibition.

Less than two miles away, parishioners at Christ the Incarnate Word Catholic Church, which, like Ascension, sits in the heart of Houston’s Asiatown community, held a series of Masses to welcome the Year of the Cat for Lunar New Year.

Asian traditions blend with Catholic faith

Known as Tet in Vietnamese, the Masses prayed for peace in the New Year, the repose of the soul of grandparents and familial ancestors and for sanctifying daily work. Led by Father Thu Ngoc Nguyen, Christ the Incarnate Word is one of more than nine Catholic communities with growing Vietnamese populations that also celebrate Tet.

With many immigrants and their descendants making their homes in the Archdiocese in the 70s and 80s, today, more than 590,000 people in the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metropolitan area identified as Asian, according to data from the 2020 Census. Of that roughly half-million, more than 150,000 reported as Vietnamese, comprising the largest Vietnamese community outside of California.
More than 90,000 identify as Catholic, according to estimates from the several Asian ethnic ministries that serve Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Indian and Indonesian Catholics.

Among the many that serve in leadership, catechist and ministry volunteer roles in parishes and schools, Grace Kwong has long celebrated Chinese New Year with her family, who hails from Hong Kong.

Now a mother of two, Kwong said it was “so special” to bring her own children to the celebration at Ascension.

“We really missed it during the pandemic,” she said, “so being able to attend and have fellowship with parishioners and friends at an event that celebrates our culture within our faith community was so memorable.”

‘United freely’

For Kwong, her Catholic faith and her Hong Kong heritage go hand in hand.

“Over the years, I have really come to appreciate more and more my unique identity of being a Chinese Catholic in America,” she said. “To be united freely in worship, faith, language, heritage and cultural celebrations is a reality I do not take for granted.”

She also sees this come to life in her role as assistant principal at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School, also near Houston’s Asiatown neighborhood in southwest Houston.

She continued: “To be able to do all those things that embody my identity at its core at work and invite an entire school community to join in is probably one of the rarest opportunities out there. I am so beyond blessed to be part of the St. Francis de Sales community that treasures and celebrates these parts of my identity that are most special to me.”

She and her husband both speak Cantonese, a language the two have emphasized in teaching to their son and daughter, alongside their Chinese cultural traditions that accompany the Lunar New Year.
‘We have made extra effort in recent years now with the new generation to make sure the traditions of family dinner, gathering and exchanges of lucky red packets get passed on to our children while also honoring our family members who have passed away,” she said.

She said she also realized the blessing of having her entire mom’s side of the family ending up in Houston, allowing gatherings for Lunar New Year to include nearly everyone — grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings alike — in attendance.”

Father Shuxin “Roger” Zhang, pastor of Ascension Mission, was also available to hand out the lucky red envelopes, as well as celebrate Mass and preside over a special prayer ceremony after the Jan. 22 Mass.

A few days later, at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School, two more dancing lions also visited the school to perform and help students welcome the Lunar New Year.

Joy amid grief

Asian Catholics in the Archdiocese also joined their prayers for their ancestors with those around the U.S. who were praying for the victims of a tragic shooting in Monterey Park, California, in east Los Angeles, that claimed the lives of 11 people on the eve of Lunar New Year on Jan. 21.

A man fired into a crowded dance ballroom and also wounded at least 10 others. The tragedy has marred Lunar New Year celebrations in a community that’s predominantly Asian. A Mass was celebrated the next day at a Catholic parish just a half mile away from where the shooting took place, especially for those who died.

A few days later, Pope Francis shared his sadness after learning of the shooting in a telegram message from Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Vatican secretary of State, to Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who wrote: “His Holiness joins the entire community in commending the souls of those who died to almighty God’s loving mercy, and he implores the divine gifts of healing and consolation upon the injured and bereaved.”