Date: January 8, 1972
Location: Kansas City, MO
By: Helen Huyck
Newspaper: The Kansas City Star
A Trappist monk who spent 10 years at the monastery in Ava, Mo., has coupled his love of flying with his interest in missions to carve a new career for himself in the remote and arid regions of Northeastern Brazil.
The Rev. Marc Tillia, known as “the flying priest,” said because of primitive roads some of the remote areas have had no visit from a priest in 14 to 20 years. Many are impassable much of the year because it rains and floods. The main city in the Sento Se parish, Juazeiro, is on the San Francisco river which is more than a half-mile wide, normality.
He returned to the Mid-West in November seeking help to purchase a new Cessna 182 airplane to replace his 1941 model Interstate Cadet.
Father Tillia had planned to fly the new plane to his headquarters in Sento-Se, a town of 3,000 up-river from Juazeiro, this month, but learned Thursday the Cessna plant in Wichita cannot be purchased until February.
Three-fourths of the needed $22,000 has been pledged, largely through “Wings of Hope,” a non-denominational Humanitarian group of dedicated St. Louis businessmen. The organization works in the cause of brotherhood, largely in aviation, in Africa, South America, New Guinea and Central America.
Father Tillia will become a member of the Catholic archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, while continuing his work in Brazil.
He had known the Most Rev. Ignatius J. Strecker in 1962 while he was serving as bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in Missouri and the priest was at the monastery.
When Father Tillia decided to seek financial help in the Mid-West, he told his superior, Bishop William Murphy, that he wished to belong to a diocese in the states. Bishop Murphy suggested he contact Archbishop Strecker. The plans for his affiliation were formulated.
“He will be a natural member of our archdiocese as soon as the official steps are made to transfer him from the Trappist order,” the archbishop explained. “Then he officially becomes one of our priests but continues his missionary work. The archdiocese will be responsible for his salary.”
Father Tillia said it takes three days for a jeep to cross the 150-mile parish when the roads are at their best. “Other areas have visits from a priest only every year or two, and there are always a dozen or more marriages to perform and usually 50 baptisms.”
Since going to Brazil in the fall of 1969 he has supported himself through monthly letters which he says “brings in a few hundred dollars a month.”
From this source of income, a church has been constructed. “It is a pretty good looking church too,” he said. “It was built by the people, is made of brick, has a tile roof and holds 200 people.”
Contributions from the letters also provide insurance, parts and gas for the airplane, Bibles, emergency money for the sick and personal support.
In a July letter he told of visiting a town where he had never been. No one knew he was arriving, but within minutes a growing group of people made the rounds of each of the approximately 60 homes, to shout, “The Padre is here. It’s been over a year! Everybody come to mass! Bring the babies to be baptized!”
Father Tillia visited numerous schools and churches in the archdiocese while here to tell of his work and needs.
The 39-year old priest said, “I’ve been interested in airplanes since I was a kid. I learned to fly in 1966 in Arizona and hoped to be able to do mission work in Mexico.”
Recalling the circumstances which sent him to Brazil instead, Father Tillia said he met the Rev. Bernard Van Hoomissen, his partner in Brazil, when he was in the states for hospital treatment.
“He was recovering from hepatitis, pneumonia and a broken arm, and he was going to try to get a Cessna 185 through ‘Wings of Hope’ and fly it to Brazil. I figured he would kill himself, so I offered to fly him down in my 1941 model I bought a half share in for $500. He took me up on it!”
In Brazil there are 40,000 parishioners in 120 towns and villages where he and his co-workers are located. The total diocese has 220,000 Catholics with 15 priests to care for the total needs.
While spiritual needs are paramount in the missionary effort, attempts to improve living conditions in any way possible are also highly important, in the viewpoint of the priests.
“The average worker makes only 35 cents a day when he can find work and about the only kind available is on the ranches or vegetable farms,” he explained.
He said he and his co-workers are at the literacy stage now. “Many are just learning to read so they can understand the Bible. Only when you can read and write can you vote, and only those who vote, as is true all over the world, can expect help from the government.
The priest described the region around Juazeiro like the desert areas of Arizona and California. “There is great potential if we could get water and fertilizer to the area. There is no boundary beyond which they could not go if we could just get those two, and when people have a chance to earn their living they won’t drift to the city and the slums where they become ripe for revolt and communism.”
He described the industrial centers in Brazil as “having all of the advantages of civilization … traffic jams, pollution, crime, violence and corruption!”
“We are trying to bring Christian ideals to them without imposing our own ideas on the people,” he added.
“There are some strikingly beautiful results from the general population of the region composed of Indian blood, a good bit of Negro color and features, European names, and Portuguese language as the means of communication,” Father Tillia said.
He holds a master’s degree in philosophy from the Angelicum University in Rome.
He will return to St. Louis to pick up the new Cessna, Archbishop Strecker said. Contacts can be made through Wings of Hope, Inc., 2319 Hampton Ave., St. Louis, Mo., or the Buck-for-a-Monk-Club, 5101 N. 39th Drive, Phoenix, Ariz.