Let us pray in thanksgiving for the life of Fr. Paul J. Nienaber, SJ, who died on October 31, 2020 in Pontiac, Michigan. He was 65 years old. May he rest in peace.
Paul is survived by his siblings: Tony, Mark, Joseph (“Jay”), and Christine (Nienaber) O’Bryan.
Paul was born on January 25, 1955 in Covington, Kentucky. Before entering, he earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign(1988). Paul entered the Society of Jesus on September 2, 1988, at Berkley, Michigan. He was ordained on June 12, 1999, at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cincinnati, and professed final vows on July 27, 2018, at St. Scholastica Church in Woodridge, Illinois.
During regency, Paul was a visiting professor of physics at Xavier University (1992-1995). After ordination, he worked at Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) in Batavia, Illinois, where he was a member of the MiniBooNE Collaboration, a neutrino experiment. He worked at Fermilab both full-time (2000-2001; 2002-2004) and part-time while he was an assistant professor at: Marquette University (1999-2000), College of the Holy Cross (2001-2002), and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, Minnesota (2004-2019). From 2009-2019, Paul was an associate professor of physics and the chair of the physics department. In December of 2019, Paul was missioned to Colombiere Center to care for his health.
In 2015, Paul published a book of hymns and settings entitled: Arise, O Church! Texts for Sung Prayer by Paul Nienaber, SJ. (Paul wrote the hymns and other composers created the musical settings for them.) Here is the final verse from his text “A New Passover”:
When earth’s banquets all have ended,
when we reach those farther shores
where the songs of saints are blended
with the angels’ blissful scores,
at the wedding table seated,
hosted by our great High Priest,
sin forgiven, death defeated—
all are welcomed to the feast.
Paul was a priest, a teacher, a particle physicist, a gifted homilist, and a poet. His was a formidable intellect, with a vocabulary to match. He was deeply dedicated to his teaching and to his students, encouraging and supporting a number of budding young physicists through their work with him at Fermilab and beyond. He lived the compatibility of science and faith, perhaps because he was able to give so much of both his mind and heart to each. But he was equally an artist, composing and publishing texts for sacred music, explaining, “I’m constantly looking for words that help people pray, that can express in a new way, or undiscovered way, what is this great Mystery we’re caught up in.”
Paul himself was caught up in mystery, battling more than his share of demons throughout his life. It posed a challenge for life in community, to be sure, and yet he maintained a not-at-all small circle of close friends, men and women to whom he was fiercely loyal and generous, as well as disarmingly affectionate and vulnerable. While Paul was missioned to St. Mary’s in Winona, he was greatly appreciated and well cared for by his friends and colleagues. These people became his community, a very dedicated and generous circle of love and care, for the remainder of his life. He loved to give gifts of home-made baked goods, and he could whip up an astonishingly tasty meal from whatever leftovers he found in the fridge. But he wanted—maybe more than anything—to be a good Jesuit. He was devoted to Mary, committed to his vocation as a priest and Companion of Jesus, and he held to a vision of the Church in which everyone had a place at the table, even as he struggled to find his own.