‘Good shepherd’ Father Tony Yllana marks 40 years of priesthood

Father Tony Yllana blesses the altar during his 40th anniversary Mass at Church of the Good Shepherd, Smithfield, April 1, 2024. (Photo/Jennifer Neville)

“April Fools,” Father Pio Antonio “Tony” Yllana greeted the congregation gathered at his 40th anniversary thanksgiving Mass April 1 at Church of the Good Shepherd, Smithfield.

Then he joked that the homily at the Mass would be 40 minutes long, one minute for each year he has been a priest.

His sense of humor is part of the reason Father Yllana is approachable to parishioners, but the main reason is that he truly cares about every parishioner, from the youngest to the oldest, parishioners said.

For example, when Sarah Freeman was one year old, she escaped her mother and toddled to the altar to be with Father Yllana at the end of Mass. Rather than sending her back, Father Yllana took her hand and walked with her as he processed out of the worship space, her mother, Lisa, said.

“He makes you feel special. He makes you feel wanted. I really like that about him,” said parishioner Michelle Morningstar.

She relayed the account of the time her son wore his military uniform to Mass on his first break from West Point. Father Yllana enthusiastically asked Will if he could take a picture with him. When the young man graduated from West Point, he wore his new officer uniform, and Father Yllana once again excitedly asked for a photo with him.

Simple, Catholic upbringing

Father Yllana, 68, grew up Catholic, in “a simple family” in Naga City in the Philippines. He is one of nine children who survived to adulthood; one was stillborn and three others died from illness in their early years.

Father Yllana went to Mass each Sunday, prayed the rosary daily with his family and attended Catholic schools. Sometimes, the family walked a mile to get to Mass. Other times, they walked a half-mile to attend Mass at a nearby hospital. He described his faith as steadfast throughout his life, and a favorite celebration as a child was a nine-day novena honoring Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

He graduated high school in 1973 at the beginning of martial law in the country, which was plagued with corruption, he said – an estimated 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured and around 3,300 people were killed during the regime. Father Yllana had been a priest for two years in the Philippines during the 1980s when a revolution overthrew the government. He supported the rebels by privately praying the rosary “in communion” with others, he said.

After attending University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City from 1973 to 1977, he became a commerce graduate of accounting. His father died in his third year of university, and he began a one-year pre-college program at the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary in Naga City in 1977.

He attended Holy Rosary Major Seminary from 1978 to 1980 and studied theology there from 1980 to 1984. He studied at the Asian Institute in Manila from 1987 to 1990, where he earned a master’s degree in pastoral sociology.

Father Yllana was ordained a transitional deacon on Sept. 11, 1983, and a priest on April 1, 1984. He follows the example of several members of his family: his aunt entered religious life; and two uncles and one brother are priests.

He ministered in various roles, including parochial vicar and parish priest, at about 20 places from 1984 to 2005 in the Archdiocese of Caceres and the Diocese of Libmanan, both in the Philippines.

He moved to the United States, where he was a parochial vicar at six parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, from August 2006 to June 2015. He then came to our diocese, where he was simultaneously parochial administrator at St. Joseph, Woodlawn; All Saints, Floyd; and Church of the Risen Lord, Stuart, from Aug. 1, 2015, to July 31, 2016. He became the pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd on Aug. 1, 2016.

‘The good shepherd’

Father Yllana said in his homily at the anniversary Mass that “life as a priest is a big challenge,” as he must adapt to each unique parish and relate to the unique members. In addition to celebrating Mass, he is responsible for administrative duties and the needs of the flock.

In the Philippines, he often traveled by boat or walked several hours to parishes to administer sacraments; in the cluster parishes of Woodlawn, Stuart and Floyd, he said he sometimes drove “rough roads” to reach individuals in need.

Under his leadership at Good Shepherd, the number of social activities and ministries has grown. Father Yllana was instrumental in the establishment of the Knights of Columbus Council 17335. Children’s Liturgy of the Word has expanded from early elementary school students to include children as young as three, and it has become so popular that the group nearly fills the commons during the Sunday Mass. The number of people in the youth group has grown, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has flourished and adult religious education includes more options, including women’s book studies about Mary.

Parishioners said the sense of parish community has greatly improved, and Deacon Stanley Stefanowicz said Father Yllana has brought “a metanoia” to the congregation of about 200 families. (“Metanoia” is a Greek word meaning “a transformative change of heart”; Gospel authors used it to describe spiritual conversion.)

“The best way to describe Father Tony is that he is a good shepherd,” said Deacon Stefanowicz, now retired.

Because the parish was originally a mission, it has had only a few pastors over the years, which has resulted in some turmoil, Deacon Stefanowicz said.

When faced with a parish in such a situation, “You might have a priest who comes in there and instead of picking the sheep up and carrying them like Jesus did, he would force the sheep to walk and to obey and to move back to the flock instead of being carried by the shepherd,” the deacon said.

“A priest coming into a parish that had been in turmoil might take a more stringent viewpoint, a more dictatorial approach,” he said. “Father’s approach was that of the good shepherd, to … carry the sheep to bring them into the flock.”


Scroll to Top