Fr. Thien – Rich in Kindness

His tiny parish on ‘Catholic Hill’ in Braxton County, and his even smaller mission church in rural Clay County are proof that even if you are small in number with Christ fully alive in your heart YOU ARE MIGHTY.

Father Thien Duc Nguyen, S.V.D. (Society of the Divine Word), said his communities are “rich in kindness and love.”

Both St. Thomas Parish, Gassaway, and Risen Lord Mission, Maysel, are tucked away in scenic rural areas of central West Virginia. On a “good” Sunday, St. Thomas Parish’s pews are filled with 60 people; and at the mission church, 20.

Risen Lord Pantry, Clay

While other parishes two, three, and four or more times that size are struggling to breathe life into their social ministries and community outreach projects, Father Thien’s faithful are putting all their trust in God.

Both the parish and mission run food pantries feeding hundreds each month, and both are part of a backpack program that provides weekend snacks and staples for children in the local elementary schools.

The Mission church sits in what is considered a food desert with nothing more than a convenient store in a reasonable distance for families. Needless to say, the foot traffic to the food pantry there is heavy, but what is also packed is the prayer box on the property. After every distribution day, Fr. Thien and his volunteers empty the box and add the heartfelt notes to the prayers of the faithful.

The kindness and love of the faithful in these two communities doesn’t stop there.

Last month, on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Catholic families of Gassaway officially began another significant ministry – Walking with Moms in Need.

Risen Lord Prayer Box

Walking with Moms in Need is a nationwide, parish-based initiative to increase support for pregnant and parenting mothers in need. Everyone who is prolife and part of a Catholic parish should know where to refer a pregnant woman in need. Walking with Moms in Need is an opportunity for Catholic parish families to “walk in the shoes” of local pregnant and parenting women in need, accompanying them in friendship and helping to connect moms with local resources.

Bishop Mark Brennan has repeatedly said, “our Church is both pro-child and pro-woman. As the prolife movement long ago realized, seeking only to limit or eliminate abortions is not enough. We must also provide support to mothers before and after they give birth and to their families.”

Father Thien wholeheartedly believes Walking with Moms in Need is one way we can put our words into action.

So, after Mass on April 7th, just like after every Sunday Mass, the congregation at St. Thomas Parish prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Then he brought six parishioners before the altar, blessed them, and installed them as officers of this new ministry, reminding all that Divine Mercy is a call for us to show “God’s mercy – God’s love to other.”

“We are called to be the Divine Mercy’s disciples – the devotion for Divine Mercy Sunday is not something to be celebrated just once a year, nor is it simply a chaplet or modified rosary of prayers sung or recited,” he said. “Divine Mercy is meant to fill our lives and flow through us into the lives of others.”

After the blessing there was even more to celebrate. Father Thien and parishioners gathered for a baptism and a baby shower to benefit two young mothers. Mothers that have benefited from the pantries and will now have the extended love and support from the Walking with Moms in Need.

Oh wait! That’s not all! Those who lingered that busy Sunday also attended Father’s blessing of the new baby pantry stocked with baby diapers and supplies that was opening the next day.

“We have been helping many moms with utilities, diapers…” Fr. Thien said. “We never turn anyone away,” adding, Walking with Moms in Need is just a natural next step.

Crowd at Blessing

The new program for the Braxton County parish will also be helping grandparents. Father said that as many as 80% of grandparents in the county are taking care of their grandchildren.

“At Risen Lord Church we have been helping 106 students from Clay Elementary School weekly during the school year, and around 250-300 families who come to the food pantry every month,” he noted. “At St Thomas, we have been helping 23 students at Burnsville Elementary School weekly during school year, and around 100-120 families who come for food at food pantry every month.”

Ordained eight years ago on May 28th, Fr. Thien has learned it just takes one person to make a difference, just like St. Teresa of Calcutta taught – don’t sell yourself short – “If you can’t feed a hundred people then feed just one.” That slogan is printed on the side of the pantries’ box truck.

St. Thomas food pantry

“The word mission means ‘to be sent’,” Father said. “Jesus’s mission on earth was to bring the Good News of salvation, and today the Church Universal continues that work. We, as the Church, are part of that mission. We form one people- bishops, priests, religious, and laity. We are bound together in communion of faith; called to a commitment of love with Jesus as our center and the Holy Spirit as our source of life and power. We are called to be Divine Mercy Disciples.”

Father Thien shared a quote from Pope Francis:

Blessing of women who oversee this ministry

“Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself; and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves.

Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is…life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.”

To donate to St. Thomas and Risen Lord’s social ministries, please make check payable to: Saint Thomas Food Pantry or Risen Lord Food Pantry and mail to:

Saint Thomas Catholic Church

624 Kanawha St.

Gassaway, WV 26624

Q&A with Fr. Thien

Where are you from, and when did you come to WV?

I was ordained on May 28, 2016, at our motherhouse at Techny (Chicago), Illinois, when I was 33 years old. I am a member of the Society of the Divine Word. Our society is the 6th largest congregation and largest to focus on missionary work. I came to West Virginia in October 2016; my first assignment was St. Thomas in Gassaway.

I grew up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. My hometown is very much like Gassaway with many mountains. My family planted coffee and black peppers to earn a living.

My home parish was founded 68 years ago. Our village is 100% Catholic. My great grand uncle was a priest. He founded the village in 1956 after we moved from the north. We would celebrate daily Mass at 4:30 a.m. Thousands of people would attend. About 60 men from my hometown parish have become priests, and we count more than 200 religious among us. I have two uncles who are priests, and my aunt and my sister are nuns. One of my uncles has 11 children, seven of whom have become nuns. Another cousin has 5 priest and a nun in one family.

You have such a merciful and giving heart. What is the inspiration behind that?

I was born not long after the war ended in Vietnam (1975). My mom and dad worked very hard to have enough food for their four children, so I understand how it is to be poor. Also, I learned from my father, who often reminded us to care for the poor. I still remember when the beggar came to our door to ask for a bowl of rice. If they came during the meal, my dad always told us to go out and invite them to join us. If they hesitated to join us, he would bring the food out for them and always give them an extra bowl of rice or corn even when we didn’t have much.

Later, when I became an SVD, I learned that our founder’s motto was “Jesus’s Mission is Our Mission.”

The Bible verses that I chose for my ordination was “The love of Christ compels us (me).” (2Cr 5;14) The words of Jesus always reminds me that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”

Your churches are so small in numbers, how on earth do you do it?

I think we all are “call to serve not to be served (Mt 20:28).” I believe that God calls my parishioners and me to be missionaries. He put me in one of the poorest areas of WV for a reason. I always remind my parishioners that there’s a reason for everything! We have a sign that reads: “Signs of the times” (Vatican II). It reminds us that we are called to find that reason and respond to it.

We’re unable to do it without the help of benefactors. We have so many benefactors to thank: SVD; Catholic Sharing Appeal; Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation; Knights of Columbus (Charleston); St. James the Greater, Charles Town; WVU; and many individuals.

Without their help, we’d be unable to help as many people in Braxton, Clay, and neighboring counties. We are God’s instrument, and benefactors are the channels to the poor and needy. In addition to benefactors’ donations parishioners hold fundraising events. We are always mindful that if we are generous to others, God will be generous to us as well. We still need more hands to work with us.

I also thank the many SVD priests and brothers who came before me and have served the diocese since 1972. They established these ministries to reach out to the poor; and many of my brother priests in other parts of West Virginia (today) also have these ministries in their parishes. We’re continuing the legacy of love and response to the call to care for the poor, the needy and the marginalized.

Final words?

As a pastor, I’m so glad parishioners of St. Thomas and Risen Lord have, as Divine Word Missionaries say, “One heart, many faces!”

During the past six years, one to five people have joined our church each year. In the past three weeks, there have been 10 people who want to start RCIA at St. Thomas. We hope that our ministries sow the “mustard seed” of love and that God will make them grow.