MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - (This article has been updated from its original publication in a Vatican Newsletter in 2016)
The faithful gathered around the priest, who strummed a guitar, sang and encouraged the marchers. A volunteer led the way, shouldering the Cross. Passing drivers did a double-take. Bystanders fixed their eyes on the Cross and the crowd, seemingly taken aback by a sudden and unexpected encounter with the Passion of Jesus. Father Bruce sang hymns, spirituals and popular songs, interspersed with admonitions.
"Stay closer together!" the priest shouted while encouraging the throng to lift up voices in song.
These same streets were the stage where city sanitation workers protested in 1968, striking to demand a livable wage. Many had to seek government assistance to feed their families even though they were working full time picking up garbage.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis help the sanitation workers. Dr. King held at least one meeting in what was St. Patrick's rectory dining room. The dining room now serves as a chapel.
Father Bruce and his 2016 Good Friday flock followed in the footsteps of Dr. King and the sanitation workers, passing government housing projects, an African American Gospel radio station (WLOK) and eventually reaching the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorriane Motel, site of King's martyrdom on April 4, 1968.
Father Bruce led a heartfelt rendition of "We Shall Overcome," the American Civil Rights anthem. Many visitors to the sacred grounds intuitively joined in the song as Father Bruce's flock arrived on the scene.
Father Bruce returns to St. Patrick's at 277 South 4th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue at noon this Good Friday, April 14, 2017. All are invited and encouraged to wear comfortable shoes. The procession will return to St. Patrick's (the church across Dr. King Ave. from FedEx Forum) in plenty of time for the Good Friday service to be held in St. Patrick's sanctuary at 3 p.m.
It would take a whole book to tell the adventures of Rev. Father Dennis Bruce Nieli. This little article is a snapshot, a brief glimpse of a man who God uses as one of his instruments in our day and time.
An itinerant preacher in both English and Spanish, "Father Bruce" as he is known, travels mostly in North America as a Paulist Catholic Evangelist and Missionary. The Paulist Fathers, the first order of priests founded in the United States of America, give Father Bruce free rein to preach at parish
missions, retreats and revivals.
Now on the eve of his 70th year, Father Bruce's gifts of the Holy Spirit have been enjoyed by people in hundreds of parishes as well as other congregations across the world. He's heard thousands of confessions at his many stops.
In May 2016, Father Bruce led pilgrims for a sixth time to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul in Greece and Turkey. He's led others on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The Missionaries of Charity call on Father Bruce to provide ongoing formation in Kolkata, India. A frequent visitor to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Father Bruce has a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Between 1998 and 2013, this gifted preacher was based at the home parish of this reporter, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Memphis, the American city with the highest percentage of poor people in a U.S. city with a population more than 500,000.
Father Bruce felt right at home with the needy and, in fact, often donated his entire monthly salary ($250) to a woman unable to pay rent or feed her family (I am sure he'll scold me for revealing this fact!) St. Patrick is located in Memphis' poorest district and the parish is dedicated to serving their needs.
It was Father Bruce who encouraged the Most Rev. J. Terry Steib, S.V.D., Bishop of Memphis in Tennessee, to locate a Jubilee Catholic School on the St. Patrick Church campus, giving poverty-stricken children the unprecedented opportunity in modern times to receive a Catholic education.
Because of his demanding travel schedule, St. Patrick parishioners in Memphis never really knew when the smiling, gray-headed Paulist with a New York accent would be celebrating Sunday Mass.
Out of the blue, Father Bruce would appear, sharing the joys and sorrows of his latest journeys and always preaching with fire! It was easy to see why the U.S. Catholic Bishops invited Father Bruce to serve as Director for Evangelization, 1994-96.
During that period, Father Bruce led the Catholic Healing Service in Oklahoma City after an American terrorist ignited a bomb, killing 168 people.
After the unspeakable attacks of 9/11, Father Bruce was present at Ground Zero in New York City, leading a solemn and prayerful procession as workers carried the dead.
When Hurricane Katrina smashed the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005, Father Bruce ministered in Spanish and English to the thousands of storm refugees temporarily huddled in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.
As mothers, fathers and their children fled the violence and terrorism of narcotics dealers and gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, Father Bruce provided tender, loving care at refugee centers on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo border in 2015.
After the 2014-15 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, Father Bruce preached a healing revival at a Catholic parish and school.
It seems Father Bruce finds himself ministering to the brokenhearted on a very regular basis. The priest's compassion flows as he digs deep to deliver words of comfort, sometimes becoming emotional himself during homilies.
Prisoners on Death Row in Tennessee have received regular visits from Father Bruce, who prays, counsels and encourages those condemned to death, reminding them that our Lord faced the same sentence with a forgiving heart.
Memphis is about 1,000 miles from Father Bruce's boyhood home in Long Island, New York. Father Bruce says he studied Spanish and guitar as a youngster, becoming fluent in both. They have served him well! About half of Father Bruce's preaching is in Spanish and he often receives invitations to address diocesan conferences and gatherings on themes of spirituality and evangelization.
Father Bruce even evangelized his own mother, a devout evangelical who raised Father Bruce and his brother and sister in the Catholic tradition. In 1981, Father Bruce received his 64-year-old mother into the Catholic Church.
"She liked my Catholic enthusiasm," he said.
As a high school student, Father Bruce says actor Gregory Peck's portrayal of a missionary priest in the film Keys of the Kingdom helped inspire his vocation. By chance, Father Bruce read a TV Guide article about Rev. Father Elwood "Bud" Kieser, a Paulist priest who produced a TV show called "Insight."
Father Bruce studied for the priesthood and was ordained on May 5, 1973 at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City where Servant of God Rev. Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, C.S.P., Founder of the Missionary Society of St. Paul, is buried. (Father Bruce is now a player in the cause for Sainthood for Hecker).
During Father Bruce's first assignment at St. Paul the Apostle parish, Pope John Paul II visited New York City. Father Bruce served on the Spiritual Preparation Committee and the Youth Concert Committee, leading "Alabare," a Spanish charismatic song, from the stage of Madison Square Garden as the Holy Father absorbed the moment just a few feet away.
Five years later, while working in Matamoros, Tamualipas, Mexico, Father Bruce helped a Salvadoran refugee family fleeing the violence of El Salvador's civil war. Father Bruce guided the refugees, including a quadriplegic young man named Victor, to reunite with their mother in Montreal, Canada. Victor not only got to be at his mother's side but met Pope John Paul II!
When John Paull II visited San Antonio in 1987, Father Bruce served as one of the unseen hands, writing his talk in Spanish on parish life, "The Parish as Family of Families."
With such a rich treasure chest of spiritual gifts, it's no wonder Father Bruce was filled with joy when Pope Francis invited him to serve as a "Missionary of Mercy" in 2016.
Father Bruce writes, "I have felt particularly bonded to this incredible Pope Francis and his authentic, enthusiastic and humble mission and witness of mercy to everyone and everywhere throughout the world. What an honor and privilege to be commissioned by him to preach, heal, counsel and hear confessions with his blessing, and thus extend in a universal way the love and compassion of Jesus, who lived and died that we may all have life, and, through his Holy Spirit, life to the full!"