Bishop Anthony M. Pilla was born in 1932 to Libera and George Pilla. Although he grew up in Glenville on the east side of Cleveland, his Italian heritage was always with him. Both his parents came from Colle Sannita in the province of Benevento, Italy. They instilled in young Anthony an exceptional work ethic and a strong Catholic belief. His father was an electrician, and his mother was a homemaker, taking care of Anthony and his older brother Joseph.
Bishop Pilla started off his education by attending public school in his multicultural neighborhood. He later stated that living with that kind of diversity at an early age helped him to understand what kind of world we live in and that he wanted to grow up and improve upon that world which he saw. Bishop Pilla attended Cathedral Latin High School for a couple of years before acting upon his call to the priesthood. He transferred from Cathedral Latin to St. Gregory Seminary High School in Cincinnati, graduating in 1951. Upon his graduation, Bishop Pilla came back to Cleveland to attend Borromeo Seminary College. He graduated from Borromeo in 1955 and in 1959 after completing further studies at St. Mary Seminary, Bishop Pilla became an ordained priest.
Bishop Pilla served as pastor to St. Bartholomew’s Parish in Middleburg Heights before joining the faculty at Borromeo Seminary. Not only was Bishop Pilla called to serve his faith as a priest, but he was also called to serve other men discerning their own faith. He became the rector-president at Borromeo College Seminary in 1972. This was just the beginning of a lifetime of leadership from Bishop Pilla. In 1975, he became secretary to Bishop James A. Hickey. Four years later, Pope John Paul II appointed him Titular Bishop of Scardona and Auxilary Bishop of the Cleveland diocese. This position, however, did not last for very long. Just one short year after being named Auxilary Bishop, Anthony M. Pilla was named the ninth Bishop of Cleveland. He was the first Italian American to serve as Bishop of Cleveland and he was also the first native Clevelander.
Bishop Pilla was a man for the people. With his powerful pastoral letters, he touched upon many prominent issues that people, not just Catholics, struggle with. Within these letters, Bishop Pilla reached out to others to make this world a better place. The boy who once saw the world and wanted to change it became the great Bishop who changed the world for the better.
He will be greatly missed.
Bishop Anthony Pilla was a bridge builder. He worked closely not only with the Catholic community, but with the entire community. The bishop focused on what bound us, not what divided us. He loved the Cleveland community and although very much loved his Italian heritage, he embraced, admired, and respected all cultures and religions. Bishop Pilla truly understood the meaning of love. He was the first Bishop born and raised in Cleveland that served as Bishop of Cleveland for over a quarter-century.
We have lost a true legend. My personal relationship goes back decades. The bishop was a close ally, friend and spiritual advisor. We worked on many common goals and celebrated many special occasions. Bishop Pilla was a kind, compassionate, caring, and loving man. He was a true man for others.
Bishop was with us through the inception of the Northern Ohio Italian American Foundation (NOIA) and was a true spiritual advisor to us all. He loved the Greater Cleveland community and held a very special place in his heart for our Italian American Community. As a shepherd and a man for others, he truly set the example of how to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and love.
He served as the head of the U.S. National Conference of Bishops, which, in effect, represented the tens of millions of Catholics across America. The bishop enjoyed his meetings with the late, great Saint John Paul II. In fact, he also brought his dear mother along to celebrate mass and dinner with the Holy Father. Bishop Pilla would often share many memories and his incredible words of wisdom with all.
Umberto Fedeli, Friend
One of the accomplishments that the bishop will be most remembered for is his 1993 visionary pastoral statement entitled, “The Church in the City.” Pilla urged Catholics and others to seek common ground for the common good. He invited Protestants, African American church leaders, Jews, Muslims and others to join civic, business leaders and public officials to rebuild our cities and work to overcome poverty. The Church in the City provided a moral framework for land-use policy; encouraged farmland preservation; and cautioned against policies that contribute to urban sprawl. It prompted conversations about regional cooperation, tax-based sharing, education, economic development, affordable housing, brownfields and job creation. This initiative received national attention.
Tom Allio, Served as the senior director of the Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office
For a few weeks now I have been trying to think of a few words to say about my Uncle. As time passed I realized that "a few words" just was not possible. I know that many people reading this know the Bishop of Cleveland. I thought I might take a moment and not talk about his many accomplishments for the City of Cleveland or the Catholic Church. Instead, I would take this opportunity to speak about my Uncle.
He was my only blood Uncle. My grandmother only had two children, my father and my uncle. So from the moment I was born he has always been there. He has been at my side for every milestone in my life. First Communion, Confirmation, and my Wedding. He baptized all of my children, their First Communions, their Confirmations. He was always there not only for me but for my brothers and sisters and their children. With seven older brothers and sisters, that was quite a commitment. All of his nieces and nephews stayed here in Cleveland so every single holiday we were all together. He attended most birthdays of all his grand-nieces and nephews.
As you can see, he was always around his family and I assure you he always made time for each and every one of us. I really think that from the very first day that he became bishop my grandmother set the tone. We were gathered at the house for dinner that evening and we were all sitting around the living room when he came through the door as the new Bishop of Cleveland. I happened to be sitting on the floor by grandma's feet when he said, "Hi mom." Grandma looked at him and said "I don't care who you are out there when you come through that door you are my son. Got it?" He answered softly "Yes I understand." Now that I think back over the years was that the moment that set the tone for family with all of us? What I do know is that my Uncle taught me many great things over the years. Humility, family and the love for all people I think are the largest ones.
When Uncle was at grandma's he was usually napping on the couch or he was in the kitchen. When we were little, he would always distract grandma so we could dip bread in the pasta sauce on the stove. God forbid if we got caught. Most of the time he would watch whatever sporting event was on and just talk. Over the years, some of the conversations were not always pleasant. I can remember my sophomore year at St. Ignatius I had transferred from St. Joe's. I loved St. Joe's and never wanted to leave, but my father put his foot down and made me go to Iggy. I think those first few months I did about everything anyone could possibly think to do to get tossed out. I recall getting sent to the principal’s office. I knew at that time where it was because I spent many hours there. This time was a little different. When I entered his office he was on the phone talking with someone and you could see it was not a routine call. When he hung up the phone he said to me, "That was the Bishop. You will graduate from St. Ignatius High School." Then he went on to say, "You can do it one of two ways, your way which will be very difficult, or my way which is a lot easier." My answer was, "I can't believe you called my Uncle." Needless to say, I graduated from St. Ignatius. There are so very many stories and awesome memories that I have and could write about, but even a newspaper does not have enough pages.
As I grew older, we began to have much deeper conversations. Some would say philosophical conversations. No matter what the subject he always had a unique perspective on the situation. He was always calming and extremely wise. He never became angry. He was so disciplined in everything. I have never met another person with his willpower --- especially when it came to food!
My Uncle had two families, one was the church and the other was his blood. He loved both equally very much. I know we will all live on in his memory and his love.
Jamie Pilla, Nephew
My friendship with Bishop Anthony Pilla began as his tenure as the Ordinary Bishop of Cleveland ended. Bishop Pilla and I both moved into the seminary during the summer/fall of 2006. He was moving into the seminary as he officially retired from his priestly/episcopal duties at the same time I began my official discernment of priestly ministry. The first encounter I had with the bishop was as his student in our freshman theology class. We were all quite nervous at first he had a reputation of holding seminarians to a high academic standard and we were no different.
After our first class with the bishop he called me aside and asked if he could ask me a favor. I was a bit shocked, after all what favor could I possibly do for this legend of a man. He asked me if I could save him a seat at my lunch table the days we had lunch at the seminary. It would be an honor I told him, and it was. So twice a week, Bishop Pilla would sit at with us at the freshman table. Not only did we get a kick out of the amazing stories and lessons he would teach us but we were also amazed at how much he genuinely cared about who we were and how we were doing. Our lives were very boring to the life he had lived but nevertheless he wanted to learn more about our stories.
After our lunches with the bishop the freshman would recount the stories, he told and we would often imitate his mannerisms, especially the pointing he would do when speaking. This impersonation escalated to him pocking people with his pointer finger. He obviously never actually did this but we had fun impersonating him. One day I asked him if he would be willing to play a prank on one of my classmates. Without skipping a beat, the bishop said: “Yes! What do you need me to do?” I told him next time you are talking to my classmate simply poke him in the chest with your pointer finger. The next time we saw the bishop walking down the hallway he pulled it off like a pro. My classmate fell to the ground in shock. The bishop and I laughed and laughed until finally my classmate realized what had just happened to him.
Bishop Pilla would often ask how our families were doing. Once I asked for him to say a prayer for my grandmother who was preparing for very serious surgery. He immediately asked for her name and the hospital she was checked into. He called her in her hospital room to tell her he was praying for her. She later recalled that because of his call and promise of prayer she had such confidence that the lord would take care of her and heal her.
Eventually, I discerned out of the seminary but my relationship with Bishop Pilla continued. He would call me into his office to get filled in on my life. We would occasionally grab a bite to eat, though I did most of the eating, and talk. He was always supportive, gentle, and loving. When I married my wife, Stephanie, he honored us by praying the nuptial blessing during our wedding mass. It was an honor to not only call him my teacher and my bishop, but also my friend. My life was touched in so many ways by that humble great man, who did small things with genuine love and care.
Patrick McCarthy, Friend
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