State of Tennessee honors Paulist priest
by by Stefani Manowski
August 8, 2011

Father D. Bruce Nieli, C.S.P., plays his backpacker guitar during a session of the East Coast Holy Spirit retreat.Father D. Bruce Nieli, CSP, plays his backpacker guitar during a session of the East Coast Holy Spirit retreat.

Father D. Bruce Nieli, CSPFather D. Bruce Nieli, CSP

Father D. Bruce Nieli, CSP, was expecting to have something waiting for him in the back of the Paulist-served St. Patrick Church in Memphis, Tenn., on Good Friday – he just didn’t know what.

The item was House Resolution 73 of the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee recognizing and commending Father Nieli’s mission and ministry.

The document read: “Whereas, it is appropriate that this legislative body should honor those individuals who have answered a divine call to the ministry and who have served with dedication, vigor, and enthusiasm to perform God’s work for their congregations and their communities …

“Whereas as Associate Pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Memphis, Father Nieli’s great capacity for love, dedication of spirit, and faith in God has enriched the lives of the church and community he serves; and

“Whereas, throughout his long career as a Paulist Father, Reverend D. Bruce Nieli, C.S.P., has demonstrated the utmost professionalism, ability, and integrity, winning the unbridled respect and admiration of his colleagues and his parishioners; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Representatives of the 107th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, that we hereby recognize and commend Father D. Bruce Nieli for his abiding commitment to the principles of faith and service to humanity and extend to him our heartfelt wishes for every continued success in his future endeavors.”

Father Nieli was amazed by the award, saying, “I didn’t think it would be anything like this!”

The commendation was brought to the Tennessee House of Representatives by State Rep. Barbara Cooper, a parishioner at St. Augustine in Memphis, also served by the Paulists.

“Because the two parishes [St. Patrick and St. Augustine] serve one continuous neighborhood, we have worked on many projects together,” said Father Nieli about his camaraderie with Rep. Cooper.

Cited in the commendation are Father Nieli’s missionary works; inner-city neighborhood outreach; outreach to the African American and Latino communities; work for social justice in the areas of immigration, health care, anti-poverty initiatives; ministry to St. Jude’s Research Hospital; and ministry to prisoners on Tennessee’s Death Row in Nashville.

Father Nieli, 65, came to Memphis in February 1998, but his life of service began long before his service in The Volunteer State. He was born in Long Island, NY, to a father, Anthony, who an an hardware store and a liquor store and mother, Vivian, who worked in the home. Father Nieli’s brother, Russell, became a professor of political science at Princeton University and his sister, Dale, is now a personal trainer and yoga instructor in Santa Monica, Calif.

Mr. Nieli was a Catholic who sometimes attended Mass; Mrs. Nieli was “an unchurched evangelical,” according to Father Nieli. In fact, one of the highlights of Father Nieli’s priesthood was baptizing his own mother, who always welcomed her son’s many Jewish school friends in her home.

“My mom was always very inclusive, and there were always people of diverse backgrounds in our house,” said Father Nieli. “It was the Jewishness of Jesus that attracted me to the priesthood.”

Reading A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom and seeing the film version with Gregory Peck made the future priest realize he wanted a missionary life, a desire further enhanced by an article in TV Guide about Father Elwood Kieser and his “Insight” show.

“He mentioned that the Paulist Fathers were a community that worked with non-Catholics, and that was attractive to me because I had so many friends who were Jewish,” Father Nieli said.

The young man got in touch with Father Jack Kelly, then the vocation director of the Paulists, and was ordained a Paulist priest in 1973. He earned a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Ionia College in New Rochelle, NY, in 1979 while also serving at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan from 1972-79. In 1979, Father Nieli became the founding director of the Center for Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York, before leaving in 1983 to serve in several dioceses in Texas and the Texas Catholic Conference.

Ten years later, Father Nieli moved to Washington, D.C. to become the director of evangelization for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops before heading to Tennessee in 1998.

Father Nieli said that as a disciple of St. Paul he has the opportunity through the Holy Spirit to connect the divinity and humanity of Jesus with the divinity and humanity of people, especially in the United States. He adds, in the spirit of Paulist founder and Servant of God Isaac Hecker, “We are an e pluribus unum country and an e pluribus unum church. The Paulist priesthood brings the two together.”