Volunteers stand in a ruined doorway at Our Lady of Lavang Church, where they made repairs after a man drove into the church early on Christmas Eve. (Archdiocese of Portland)
Volunteers stand in a ruined doorway at Our Lady of Lavang Church, where they made repairs after a man drove into the church early on Christmas Eve. (Archdiocese of Portland)

UPDATED DEC. 27, 8 A.M.

The people of Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Northeast Portland didn’t let a vandal’s attack stall or dampen their Christmas observances.

Volunteers at the Vietnamese Catholic community gathered on the morning of Christmas Eve, tools in hand, to repair their beloved church. The building had been damaged heavily when a man intentionally drove an SUV into the worship space on a rampage. Pews, walls and doors were splintered.

By late afternoon, plywood neatly covered most of the damage and replaced one set of doors, folding chairs had replaced the pews, and children and teens were rehearsing for their parts in the Christmas Eve Masses soon to begin. More than 100 parishioners had responded quickly to Father Ansgar Pham’s email plea for help, arriving with toolkits and a willingness to do whatever was needed. Some parishioners cooked a batch of Vietnamese stew and bread to feed volunteers.

According to police reports, 35-year-old Hieu John Phung rented an Acura SUV then drove it through a locked gate and into the church after midnight on Christmas Eve. Phung then phoned 911 to admit to the deed. The license plate and part of the grill had been found in the church, linking Phung to the vehicular mayhem.

Police arrested Phung and booked him on charges of felony first-degree criminal mischief, misdemeanor hit-and-run driving that resulted in property damage and misdemeanor second-degree criminal trespass. He was released and ordered to attend a court hearing Dec. 26 but did not appear because he had been picked up in Astoria and was being held in a hospital, apparently for mental health reasons, authorities said. His next court appearance is slated for Jan. 9.

Parishioners young and old expressed surprise at what had happened, but no ill will toward Phung. The young people suggested Phung had been angry. One woman said he must have been hurting.

Parishioners say Phung, who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, is separated from his wife and two children, who attend faith formation classes at Our Lady of Lavang. Phung, who has no previous criminal history, told police he has been drinking alcohol every day.

Father Pham, the pastor of Our Lady of Lavang, told KOIN 6 News the driver plowed into the church in at least two separate spots. “Please pray for us during this difficult time,” Father Pham told the television station.

Christmas services took place as planned.

“In about three hours a miracle of transformation happened,” said a Facebook post from Portland Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith, who came to help with cleanup. “Destroyed pews were removed, broken glass and destroyed entrances were cleaned up and temporary doors were installed to keep the cold out.”

Parishioners neatly lined up more than a thousand folding chairs. Members of neighboring St. Rose of Lima Parish, including Father Matt Libra, came to help.

“At the end, everyone patted each other on the back and talked about the incident and that our church would have a special prayer at Christmas Eve Mass for the driver and his family,” said parishioner Thi Pham.

One parishioner was heard saying, “My faith is stronger because of this.”

“Christmas comes whether someone tries to deny us our joy,” said a Facebook post from the Archdiocese of Portland. “Our Lord reigns!”