Local Religious life

Missionary priest Marc Tillia dies in his adopted home of Brazil

In the impoverished and undeveloped region of Bahia, Brazil, Father Marc Tillia flew his airplane or drove a Jeep to remote villages where Catholics saw a priest perhaps twice a year. There, he’d conduct a backlog of multiple baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, marriages and funerals. LEAVEN FILE PHOTO

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Marc Charles Tillia was a Trappist monk whose dream of becoming a missionary was made possible in the most unlikely way.

In 1962, while studying in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow son of the Midwest who was far from home. His new friend just happened to be a bishop attending the Second Vatican Council at the time. But his friend would be promoted a few short years later to archbishop  — Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Although there were a few steps in between, it was Archbishop Strecker who would eventually welcome Father Tillia into the archdiocesan priesthood and make Father Tillia’s dream to become a missionary a reality.

Father Tillia died on April 1 at the age of 89 in the town of Sao Gabriel, Brazil — in his beloved mission country. There, he had been cared for by a former student, Cileuza Sousa, and her husband. His funeral was on Good Friday at St. Joseph Parish in Sento Se with burial in the parish cemetery.

A grateful parishioner paid tribute in this Instagram post:

“Father Marcos was a priest with a spiritual, material and social-historical legacy. [A pilot], he flew over obstacles, saved lives, evangelized and catechized [people near and] from Sento Se, sheltered and educated young peasants, fulfilled dreams, built knowledge, formed citizens, and joined forces in the construction of the 7 de Setembro College.”

Marc Charles Tillia was born on Feb. 7, 1932, in Ottumwa, Iowa. He was one of the six children of Charles Andrew and Clara (Lake) Tillia. The family moved to Eagle Grove, Iowa, and then to Jackson, Minnesota. The family belonged to St. Wenceslaus Parish (now Good Shepherd).

Father Marc Charles Tillia, in this undated file photo, was a Trappist monk who wanted to become a missionary. A friendship with Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker allowed that dream to come true. Father Tillia died on April 1 at the age of 89 in Sao Gabriel, Brazil. LEAVEN FILE PHOTO

Marc graduated in May 1949 from Jackson Public High School. He graduated in 1953 from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

And then he surprised his family.

“He came home from St. John’s and said, ‘I want to join the Trappist monastery in Dubuque. Can you take me, please?’” recalled his sister Carolyn Tillia.

His father took him to New Melleray Abbey.

Marc studied theology and went to Assumption Abbey near Ava, Missouri. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Charles Helmsing on Jan. 18, 1959, at Assumption Abbey.

The order sent Father Tillia to Rome, where he received a licentiate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in 1962.

When he returned to the United States, he received his abbey’s permission to serve at parishes and American Indian missions in Tucson, Phoenix and Douglas, Arizona. He also learned to fly.

But he wanted to go much farther.

“Soon after I was sent to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in October 1969,” wrote Archbishop Strecker, “[Father Tillia] came to visit me.

“At that time, Father Thomas Murphy, CSSR, who had been a missionary along the Amazon for some years, was appointed the Bishop of  Juazeiro, Brazil. . . . He soon appealed to me for ‘help in his mission diocese’ — for funds, but even more so for priests. I visited with Father Tillia and suggested he confer with Bishop Murphy.”

Father Tillia needed financial support. Archbishop Strecker offered to provide a salary, health benefits and travel funds. Archdiocesan parishes, notably Holy Cross in Overland Park, raised funds for Father Tillia’s missions. He was incardinated permanently as an archdiocesan priest in 1976.

Father Tillia bought a light airplane and flew it to the hardscrabble state of Bahia in Brazil in October 1969. He spent the rest of his life serving the people in and around the municipality of Sento Se.

In this impoverished and undeveloped region of Bahia, Father Tillia flew his airplane or drove a Jeep to remote villages where Catholics saw a priest perhaps twice a year. There, he’d conduct a backlog of multiple baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, marriages and funerals.

A 1984 letter from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith noted that Father Tillia’s Sao Jose Paroquial (St. Joseph Parish) “consists of 120 towns and villages with a total population of about 40,000 persons. The [Diocese of Juazeiro] is about one-half the size of Kansas with a total population of over 300,000 Catholics and is served by 15 priests.” Sento Se had a population of about 3,000.

The educational system was bad, so he built a school, sponsored students and taught. He established a model farm and taught farmers to grow better crops and form cooperatives. He helped build a flour mill and an irrigation system. He established airstrips and chapels, and helped relocate Sento Se when a new dam flooded the old townsite.

“In some ways I operate more like a bishop than a pastor,” he once said.

At his funeral, the homilist had this to say to those who mourned Father Tillia’s passing:

“The people of Sento Se were privileged to have a flying and faithful priest. . . . [And] even though looking at the sky [evokes] tears for our Father Marco, we are not sad, because we recognize his legacy and we are grateful for everything he has done for us.

“We must not mourn his death, [but] must thank God for his deeds and for having him as a protector — a caregiver — of souls and of lives.”

Father Tillia was proceeded in death by his parents, his brothers John and Thomas, and sisters Dorothea Parry and Mari Ann Von Ohlen. He is survived by his sister Carolyn Tillia.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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1 Comment

  • Thank you for this. I am currently taking an online catechist course and one question was who in your life has been a witness for you. Fr. Marc was assigned in the parish I belonged to in Phoenix, Arizona. When he went to Brazil, he would return from time to time and show slides and talk about his ministry in Sento Se. Always humble and soft-spoken, Fr. Marc was such a model of Christian action. had it not been for the online course, i would not have gone on a hunt to find out whatever happened to Fr. Marc. I am glad to have found this beautiful obituary.