Chinese children, many from immigrant families with Buddhist roots, come to the Christ Cathedral campus in Garden Grove each Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon to learn Mandarin and the culture of their ancestors. As a bonus they are also gently exposed to Catholicism.
Founded 32 years ago, Sacred Heart (Sheng Hsin) Catholic Chinese School in September moved from St. Justin Martyr Church in Anaheim to the Pastoral Center at Christ Cathedral. The move is intended to energize the Church’s outreach to the rapidly expanding population of Chinese immigrants in Orange County. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate, there were 91,146 Chinese living in Orange County in 2014, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2010. They accounted for 2.9 percent of the total county population.
With an enrollment of 30 students, ages 5 to 16, the school is seeking to grow.
“Our existence is for one thing: to evangelize,” says Tony Cheng, vice president of the Orange County Chinese Catholic Association, which oversees the school as one of its ministries. Cheng says although numerous schools teach Mandarin, only Sacred Heart Catholic Chinese School also teaches the Catholic faith with the support of the Diocese of Orange.
Evangelizing is a challenge, Cheng admits, since the vast majority of parents who send their children for three hours of weekly instruction—two hours devoted to Mandarin and Chinese culture and one hour to learning about the Catholic faith—are not Catholic themselves.
On a recent Sunday, youngsters learned about the seven sacraments. They were taught about baptism and penance by making balls of newspaper and noticing how blackened their hands became in the process and had to be washed clean, just as those sacraments cleanse the soul. Absent from the class were teenagers who objected to learning Catholic dogma that their parents do not believe.
Leonard Sun, the school’s principal, says those older students instead are taught about Christian social justice, including their duty to save water and in other ways protect nature and also to care for the most vulnerable, such as the disabled. Although prayers are not recited in class, Sun encourages the students to pray at home.
Cheng says the school’s job is to explain the Catholic faith and treat the immigrants with understanding. “We basically are sowing the seed, not knowing when we can reap the harvest,” he says.
“It is an amazing opportunity for evangelization,” says Shirl Giacomi, Chancellor for the diocese. “It is exactly what Pope Francis is calling for us to do.”
Parents say they are very comfortable with what their children are taught under Sun’s guidance, especially about obeying parents and showing respect for elders and teachers—all of which meshes well with their cultural values. They also say they appreciate Sun’s kindness and the family-like bonds that have developed between the students and their teachers.
Mimee Tang, 46, a Vietnamese immigrant and Buddhist who lives in Garden Grove, says she and her sister send their children to the school “to keep the language and culture alive.” She also hopes that knowing Chinese will open career opportunities for her 15-year-old daughter. Tang says what her daughter has learned about Catholicism already has helped her understand world history in high school.
For the minority of children whose parents are Catholic, religious instruction is preparation for baptism. Clara Leung of Huntington Beach, who emigrated with her family from Hong Kong four months ago, enrolled her 10-year-old son Bryant and 7-year-old daughter Sophie in the school in anticipation of their baptism on Holy Saturday. “I like the school because I learn about Jesus,” says Bryant. He also says he is learning about prayer and he prays that his dad finds a good job in his new country.
After school, the two older children joined their mother and two-year-old sister at a Chinese Mass that is celebrated each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on the Christ Cathedral campus by Father Joseph Yang, the spiritual director for the Chinese community at Christ Cathedral.
Father Joseph wants ties between the Chinese Mass and the Chinese school to strengthen. He says would like the students to attend the Chinese Mass to learn more about Catholicism and to present some of their artwork and Chinese spiritual readings to the congregation.
“I need the community to know what they [the school] are doing,” Yang says. A possible benefit, he says, would be to boost the school’s enrollment and fundraising.
Sacred Heart (Sheng Hsin) Catholic Chinese School
Christ Cathedral Pastoral Center, 13280 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove
School Year: Sept. 13 to June 12
Tuition and Fees: $380 plus a $40 PTA fee
Class Hours: Every Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
(Adult Chinese language class available upon request)