Father Paul Nguyen celebrates his first Mass Sunday, July 27, 11 a.m., St. Martha Church, Ashland City. He is assigned as Associate Pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Cookeville.
Deacon Paul Nguyen grew up in post-Vietnam War Saigon, surrounded by his large, extended, Catholic family. His father, however, was tragically absent from his life. An officer in the South Vietnamese army, he became a political prisoner in 1975 when Deacon Nguyen was still a baby, and died in prison two years later.
“My mother and my grandmother raised me,” Deacon Nguyen said. “And I was very blessed to have aunts as mothers and uncles as fathers. That’s how God loved me.”
After Deacon Nguyen is ordained a priest on July 26, he will begin his new mission of sharing that same love with his parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville, where he is assigned.
“I’m excited but have some nervousness because I do not really know the community there,” Deacon Nguyen said of the Cookeville parish. Unlike some other transitional deacons who have spent a year or morein the parishes where they will serve as priests, Deacon Nguyen has not spent much time in Cookeville yet.
Recently, he has been assisting Father Peter Chau, who also was born in Vietnam, at St. Martha Church in Ashland City, helping with both the English and Vietnamese Masses there. “The Ashland City community is very welcoming, always welcoming me into their homes,” Deacon Nguyen said.
He is confident he will receive the same welcome from St. Thomas Aquinas. Some of the Hispanic parishioners have already promised to help him learn Spanish. “It will be a challenge to learn another language,” said the soft-spoken Deacon Nguyen, who speaks fluently, but sometimes cautiously, in English.
St. Thomas Aquinas is currently served by pastor Father Chad Puthoff, SDS, who celebrates four Masses every weekend, including the Sunday Spanish Mass. After Deacon Nguyen is ordained and settled in there, his presence will offer some much needed relief to a busy pastor of a growing parish. Deacon Nguyen’s first step, he said, “is to get to know the community and more about the pastor and the needs of the staff.” Right now, he said, he is taking things “one step at a time.”
Deacon Nguyen’s steps leading to the Diocese of Nashville started in Chicago, where he immigrated in 1996 with his mother and sister, his only sibling. “It was a struggle,” he said, of landing in a foreign city with no knowledge of the language, forced to adapt quickly to a totally different culture. “We eventually adjusted ourselves and survived,” he said.
Deacon Nguyen went on to finish high school in Chicago and earned a B.A. in math and physics, teaching for several years after graduation. While discerning a vocation to a missionary religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, Deacon Nguyen met Father Tien Tran, also a native of Vietnam, who was then a seminarian for the Diocese of Nashville and studying for the priesthood in Chicago.
Father Tran was ordained in 2009 and currently serves as associate pastor at St. Philip Church in Franklin. Over the years, Deacon Nguyen has become close with Father Tran’s family in Nashville and still visits with them nearly every week.
After Deacon Nguyen determined that he did not want to join a missionary order that served primarily overseas, Father Tran connected him with the Diocese of Nashville, and Bishop David Choby. The warm reception and support he received from Bishop Choby made Deacon Nguyen feel like the Diocese of Nashville was the right fit for him. “I feel blessed to have a very good bishop,” Deacon Nguyen said. “I look at him as my father.”
Deacon Nguyen recently completed his seminary studies at the Oblate School of Theology at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas, earning a master’s of divinity degree. Several other seminarians from the Diocese of Nashville study there, and Deacon Gervan Menezes, who will also be ordained July 26, was a fellow graduate.
This large group of men to be ordained, Deacon Nguyen said, “are like brothers to one another.” They have helped each other throughout their formation, and plan to stay connected after they move to their assignments throughout Middle Tennessee.
“Friendship is very important in the life of a priest,” Deacon Nguyen said. Their tentative plan is to get together once a month, rotating the location to each of their new parishes.
Looking toward his ordination, Deacon Nguyen said he will strive to live simply, and maintain a strong prayer life. “That is one of the most important things as a priest,” he said.
Tracing his journey from Siagon to Chicago to Nashville, and all the dots that eventually connected to bring him to his new home here, Deacon Nguyen says, “you reflect and think, ‘wow, that’s amazing.’”