Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, died on Sept. 21 at his residence.
He was 88 and served 26 years as shepherd of the diocese until retiring on May 15, 2006.
A native of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, he was born on Nov. 12, 1932, the younger of the late Libera and George Pilla’s two sons.
Bishop Pilla grew up in a devoutly Catholic Italian family. He was educated at Parkwood Elementary School, Patrick Henry Junior High School and Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland. While in high school, he was approached about a priestly vocation. After some reflection, he transferred to St. Gregory High School Seminary in Cincinnati to discern that call.
He spent his first two years of college at St. Gregory College Seminary, then returned to Cleveland in 1953 to attend Borromeo College, from which he graduated in 1955, and Saint Mary Seminary, from which he graduated in 1959. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 23, 1959 by Bishop Floyd Begin.
His first assignment after ordination was as associate pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Middleburg Heights. In June 1960, he joined the faculty of Borromeo Seminary High School. Then-Father Pilla was appointed rector-president of Borromeo Seminary High School on Nov. 4, 1972, serving until his July 1, 1975 appointment as secretary for services to clergy and religious under Bishop James A. Hickey.
He was installed as one of three auxiliary bishops of Cleveland on June 30, 1979, along with Bishop James. A. Griffin, bishop emeritus of Columbus, and the late Bishop James P. Lyke, who later served as archbishop of Atlanta.
Bishop Pilla served as vicar of the Eastern Region of the eight-county diocese from Aug. 24, 1979 to July 29, 1980. He was named apostolic administrator of the diocese after Bishop Hickey’s elevation to archbishop of Washington, D.C.
He was was named the ninth bishop of Cleveland on Nov. 18, 1980, and was installed on Jan. 6, 1981.
His first pastoral letter, “World Peace – A Call of the Church,” was issued on Aug. 6, 1981, and called for an end to the nuclear arms race and new efforts for promoting peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. A prolific writer, he authored nine more pastoral letters during his tenure as Cleveland bishop.
He joined Cleveland developer Sam Miller on March 11, 1988 to announce the first Catholic-Jewish Colloquium to help promote better understanding and reconciliation between the Catholic and Jewish communities. The bishop and Miller had a deep mutual respect and a longtime friendship. When Miller died at age 97 in 2019, Bishop Pilla issued a statement about his friend, saying in part, “What Sam and I had as friends I only wish that everyone could find with another person from a different faith. I will always cherish the memory of my mother and Sam in her kitchen every Sunday morning praying together – hand in hand – and enjoying the bagels he would bring with coffee.”
Together they also worked to raise funds supporting Catholic education in the diocese.
In 1991, Bishop Pilla developed a vision that led to the creation of the Center for Pastoral Leadership in Wickliffe, which joined together formation and education for priests, deacons and pastoral ministers in one center. The campus houses Borromeo and Saint Mary seminaries, as well as several lay ministry programs and adult continuing education.
On a national level, he served as treasurer of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops – now called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – 1990-1992 and was elected vice president of the conference, serving 1992-1995. Next, he was elected to a three-year term – November 1995 to November 1998 – as conference president.
He also served in several other capacities with the bishops’ conference, including on the Administrative Committee of Bishops, 1981-1984; as a member of the Board and Finance Committee, 1983; the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, 1985; and chairman, United States Catholic Conference Ad Hoc Committee on Follow-up for Pastoral Economy, 1986. Bishop Pilla was chairman of the Region VI bishops (Ohio and Michigan) 1981-1982.
In addition, he was a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.
Bishop Pilla encouraged formation of Regina Health Center in 1993, a collaborative effort of 21 religious communities of men and women in the diocese to serve the retirement and nursing needs of members of religious communities, priests and laity. The innovative facility continues to operate in Richfield.
Also in 1993, he launched the Church in the City initiative to show how urban, suburban and rural communities are interconnected and with the challenge to build new communities of peace and justice. In April 1996, he distributed an action plan for the Church in the City initiative, calling on members of rural, suburban and urban parishes to enter into partnerships to promote understanding, justice and peace.
He had heart bypass surgery in November 1997 and after recovering, resumed his duties in March 1998.
The diocese celebrated his 20th anniversary as bishop on Jan. 6, 2001.
In retirement, Bishop Pilla maintained ties with many friends in the diocese and beyond. He enjoyed visiting with priest friends, attending liturgies at the seminary and whenever possible, attending priestly ordinations. Just last weekend, he participated in a celebration for the 40th anniversary of the ordination of Father Mark Latcovich, president-rector of Borromeo and Saint Mary seminaries.
The bishop had a deep devotion for his Italian heritage. On Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, he concelebrated the 10 a.m. Mass at Holy Rosary Parish in Little Italy with Bishop Edward Malesic, then celebrated noon Mass. In his homily, he told the congregation, “I am happy to be home. I was baptized in this church. It’s always good to come back home. You feel good when you come back to the neighborhood.”
Father Luigi Miola, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Maple Heights, was a longtime friend of Bishop Pilla and also a Little Italy native. Father Miola often drove the bishop to funerals and other events. He said after Mass on the feast of the Assumption, he and Bishop Pilla walked through the crowd.
“People asked him to pray or asked for a blessing for their baby or themselves. He stopped for each one. He was a very kind man,” Father Miola said. He also recalled how generous the bishop was when it came to Catholic education. After retiring, several times he agreed to allow a raffle featuring dinner with him as a fundraiser for scholarships.
He said Bishop Pilla shared a personal and very touching story in his homily on the Assumption, describing how worried he was about needing additional surgery after his 1997 heart operation.
“His mother came to the hospital to visit him and told him not to worry. ‘I talked to your (late) father last night and you’ll be OK,’ she said. After that, the bishop said he slept like a baby and everything was fine,” Father Miola said.
“He was an important man for a lot of people and he did much for the schools,” Father Miola added.
Bishop Edward Malesic said he was saddened to learn of Bishop Pilla’s death. “In my short time as bishop of Cleveland, I came to know Bishop Pilla as a very warm, kind-hearted, deeply faithful shepherd, always dedicated to the people of the diocese. He was generous with his time and sharing his knowledge and concern for the diocese with me.” Bishop Malesic also credited Bishop Pilla for inspiring him and serving as an example to him throughout his priesthood and in his years as a bishop.
“I felt so welcomed by him when I came to the Diocese of Cleveland, a Church he loves so much. As a leader in the community and friend to so many, he will be greatly missed,” the bishop added.
Archbishop Nelson Perez, who preceded Bishop Malesic in Cleveland, also sent his condolences on Bishop Pilla’s death.
“Today, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Most Rev. Anthony M. Pilla, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Cleveland, and reflect on the gift of his life with gratitude and admiration,” the archbishop said.
“Bishop Pilla warmly welcomed me to Cleveland in 2017 when Pope Francis appointed me to serve as the 11th bishop of that diocese. During my time in Ohio, he became a close friend, wise advisor and constant model of what a bishop is called to be.”
The archbishop said although Bishop Pilla retired in 2006, “He continued to faithfully serve the Church and her people in his hometown. His love and passion for the priesthood and for Cleveland was evident in all that he did to serve others. Together with the bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I extend the prayerful sympathy and condolences to Bishop Pilla’s family and many friends as well as the priests, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Cleveland. May God grant him the gift of eternal life and give peace and consolation to all those who loved, admired, and respected him.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also expressed his sympathy.
"Fran and I were saddened to learn of the death of Bishop Anthony Pilla. Bishop Pilla was a devoted servant of the Lord who cared deeply for the people of Northeast Ohio. He was one of them. And as Bishop, his relationship with the people of the diocese was as personal and meaningful as the relationship between a parish priest and his congregation. He grew up in Cleveland and led the diocese for a quarter of a century. In addition, Bishop Pilla was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1995-1998 and was the second Ohioan and second non-cardinal/archbishop to lead the group. Bishop Pilla was a personal friend of Fran’s and mine, and we will miss him very much."
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