SALT LAKE CITY — As a teenager, Tai Nguyen learned how to sew from his mother, an accomplished tailor and dressmaker.
While he was glad to have the skill, he never imagined it would come in handy when he became Father Nguyen, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Kearns, Utah.
But over the past few weeks, Nguyen has spent several hours most days hunched over a sewing machine in the parish hall, churning out fabric face masks. He is helped in the effort by four parishioners who also sew, and a couple who cuts out the masks. By mid-April, they had produced 570 masks.
The project began when Nguyen was following the news of the coronavirus so he could report what was happening to his parishioners during his livestreamed Masses. Like many others, he wanted to help in any way he could. When he heard about the need for face masks, he realized he could use the skills taught to him by his mother to make a difference.
“‘At least I could do something for the people around me,’ I thought,” he told the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the statewide Diocese of Salt Lake City.
He contacted some of his parishioners, who were willing to help. With $200 seed money out of his own pocket to buy fabric, the project began.
As they have learned of the project, other parishioners have donated funds for fabric, thread and other necessary items. The cutting and sewing is set up in a type of assembly line, with Nguyen taking on the most difficult sewing aspects of the project.
Nguyen originally planned to distribute the masks among parishioners and neighbors who can use them. However, Nguyen learned April 13 that Kali Myatt, who lives in Sandy, Utah, was collecting masks for the Navajo Nation, which as of April 11 had 698 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Discovering that Nguyen would donate 500 masks toward that effort, Myatt was overwhelmed with gratitude.
“I heard from a friend that the Navajo Nation needed masks and reached out to ask where to send them to, thinking I could send a few their way,” she said. “The guy I talked to asked how many I could send, and since I had no idea how many I could send, I countered by asking how many they needed. He said ‘Well, I have requests from senior citizen centers asking for 500,’ and my heart sank because I knew there was no way I could get 500 masks.”
“I reached out to some friends that are making masks and let them know that I would take whatever I could get and that we’d just do our best — I was hoping to send 100, and knew that even 200 would be a miracle.”
Myatt never imagined she’d be sending “so many masks to the Navajo Nation this week,” she added. “I am so grateful for everyone’s kindness and generosity, and I know these masks are much needed and will be well used.”
Nguyen plans to continue with the project as long as there is a need.
“God came to help the poor and the outcasts, to live with the poor and to be concerned with the people,” the priest said. “This is the way I follow Jesus Christ; everything I do is to help the people.”
For the project at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, some of the seamstresses work from home, while others come to the rectory after their daily prayer at the church and work alongside Nguyen. They carefully maintain social distancing as they sew.
A commercial-grade sewing machine owned by the parish and a second machine help the work move even faster. Often, they will continue at the machines into the late evening.
“They are very kind and generous and they are so happy to help the people around the world and to share their suffering,” Nguyen said.
Along with sewing, Nguyen makes and serves many meals for the seamstresses.
“I bet you that Father Tai is the only tailor among the presbyterates in the diocese,” said his colleague Father Francis-Hung Le, at St. Catherine of Siena Dominican House in Salt Lake City. “It is a wonderful and edifying example of a pastor finding a creative and pastoral way in responding to the current pandemic, keeping the local flock and the parish healthy during this testing time.”
Petersen is a reporter for the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.