As Catholics, we all love renewal stories—those stories where someone who has drifted away from the Church is drawn back to Catholicism. The story of Lily Nguyen Ellis is about faith renewal and service and how the intersection of these two forces can start a series of life-changing events.
Born and raised in New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the southwest Pacific Ocean, she loved her island and anticipated living forever in this tranquil setting.
LILY NGUYEN ELLIS HAS BEEN A PARISHIONER AT SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA CATHOLIC CHURCH IN LAKE FOREST FOR THE LAST 10 YEARS. PHOTO COURTESY OF LILY NGUYEN ELLIS
Her plans were changed in 1984 when her dad moved the family to the United States and settled in Huntington Beach. Coming to Orange County with her three sisters and two brothers, 17-year-old Nguyen Ellis started her senior year in high school. Growing up in New Caledonia and speaking French as her native language, she struggled with language and making friends. But she met one girl with similar language challenges and the two quickly bonded.
The Nguyen family began their local Catholic Mass attendance at St. Nicholas parish.
At age 18, Nguyen Ellis stopped going to Mass and began ‘acting out.’
“Everything was about me,” she recalled. “I had no connection to God.”
Nguyen Ellis worked after high school at the family bakery in Lake Forest until 1986 when she attended cosmetology school and learned to cut hair.
In 2013, she felt she was missing a connection with God and started attending Saddleback Church with a friend. Shortly after, the desire to again receive Holy Communion became very strong.
Nguyen Ellis reflected back on an image she saw of a priest.
“He was elevating the host with his hands.”
This image brought her back full circle to Catholicism.
That moment also propelled Nguyen Ellis full force into a life of service at Santiago de Compostela Catholic Church in Lake Forest. During her 10 years at Santiago de Compostela, she has been involved in a vast and varied group of ministries. She is a member of the Pastoral Council and Stewardship Council. She serves as both an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion and Sacristan. Additionally, she is a member of the Hospitality Committee, is a virtual greeter for online Masses and is involved with Children’s Liturgy.
Nguyen Ellis also helps organize both women’s and men’s retreats and is actively involved in the Women’s Circle of Faith and Leadership group. She does all of this while working full-time in her haircutting business and helping to babysit grandkids twice per week.
Fr. Martin Vu, former Parochial Vicar at Santiago de Compostela, who is now serving in the same role at St. Cecilia, called Nguyen Ellis “the heartbeat at Santiago de Compostela.”
He added: “She has done many wonderful and incredible things in the community.”
In 2016, Nguyen Ellis further cemented her life at Santiago de Compostela, marrying her now husband Wayne three days after he received the Sacraments.
When asked what her return to Catholicism has meant to her, Nguyen Ellis replied, “It is having gratitude, waking up each day, getting on my knees and thanking God for the life I have.”
And Santiago de Compostela has been a catalyst where she has found a second family.
“Everyone has similar challenges and needs,” she said. “God brings these people together at the right moment.”
The renewal story of Lily Nguyen Ellis started with an image of a priest elevating the Holy Eucharist. That image, coupled with a welcoming parish and countless service involvements, touched the lives of many along the way. Living life to its fullest and promoting family and community continue to be the cornerstones of her life.