Auxiliary Bishop Efren V. Esmilla (Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

For generations, Filipino Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had been praying for a priest who looked like them, spoke their native language, and understood their culture. They intuitively sought a priest who was one their own. So they prayed for such a man.

God must have heard their cry because 8,000 miles away in the Philippines, a young boy began to hear the call to the priesthood.

Young Efren Esmilla had already received his first holy Communion by age 6 and was by far the youngest altar server at his parish, San Bartolome (St. Bartholomew). Because of his piety he was referred to by parishioners as “Monsignor” in honor of the pastor, Msgr. Rosal Nicodemus.

But as the years unfolded, what looked to be a straight course to service as a priest in his native land took several turns. In God’s time it led to Father Esmilla’s ordination as a priest of Philadelphia, and since March 7, one of its newest auxiliary bishop.

Bishop Esmilla, 61, looks back with gratitude at God’s plan for his life.

That life course began in the town of Nagcarlan in the province of Laguna, south of the capital of Manila in the Philippines.

Cristobal and Crispina Esmilla raised 10 children, six daughters and four sons, with Efren being the second youngest.

He graduated from Catholic high school and then entered San Beda College in Manila, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1984.

While the early thought of a life of service as a priest never entirely left him, he would enter the workforce as a young man as he ”used the time to discern more,” he said.

By 1986 he, like millions of Filipinos, experienced political turmoil as the presidency of Fernando Marcos had become a dictatorship. The political situation became volatile, culminating in the 1986 People’s Power revolution when millions of citizens like Efren Esmilla flooded the streets of Manila calling for the end of the Marcos regime and a return to democracy.

Following the successful transition to free elections and the rise of Corazon Aquino as the new president, Efren responded anew to the call toward priesthood.

But because of his time spent working, he was deemed a “late vocation” and denied entrance to the local diocesan seminary. “When I was not accepted at first to the seminary, I believed God had a better plan for me,” Bishop Esmilla said.

He had trust in Divine Providence. It would draw him far from his home but close to his people.

His parents were living in the United States, in the West Chester area, along with other family members. A cousin at St. Agnes Parish sent him a medal of St. John Neumann, who had left his home in Bavaria to minister in Philadelphia as bishop of that young diocese in the 1860s.

“I would follow in his footsteps,” Bishop Esmilla recalls. “I have a great devotion to the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.”

At that time Efren’s father was working as the sexton at St. Agnes . He explained his son’s dilemma to the pastor at that time, Msgr. Lawrence Kelly, who suggested the young man apply to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and study for the priesthood in Philadelphia. Efren did so, was accepted, and entered in the fall of 1988.

Coming to a new country and entering the seminary in Philadelphia, with all the cultural differences, actually represented “not a lot of adjustment, because Philadelphia is very traditional in religious (practice), and that was also so in the Philippines,” Bishop Esmilla said.

At St. Charles, “my formation was really great. The faculty helped me adjust, and they accepted me.”

He earned his Master of Divinity degree there and was ordained a priest in 1993 by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

His first priestly assignment was to St. John Chrysostom Parish in Wallingford, Delaware County. Over the next seven years at that assignment the foundation of his priestly ministry became clear.

“It was there that the Eucharist became my focus,” Bishop Esmilla said.

“I really embraced the words, ‘I have come to serve (Mt. 20:28).’ The influence of the Blessed Sacrament really captured my heart.”

Seeing the crucifix at the altar at every Mass he celebrated, he was driven to the concept of prayer tied to service. “Service is the name of the game,” he said.

Following a two-year assignment at Maternity B.V.M. Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, he was assigned to the formation team at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

The theme of service was again was driven home in the words of the rector at that time, then-Msgr. Michael Burbidge. Bishop Esmilla remembers him saying, “A man of service needs to be a man of prayer.”

“I’m not an academic,” said Bishop Esmilla, “but I am a man of prayer and service.”

His role at the seminary as director of pastoral and apostolic formation primarily involved instructing seminarians in how to work hard, and prayerfully, in a variety of assignments.

Bishop Esmilla’s spirituality remains one of humble, prayerful service in the spirit of another of his saintly heroes, St. Vincent de Paul.

“He said, ‘Give me a man of prayer, and he will be capable of anything,’” the bishop recalls.

That capability would be tested in the years after his seminary assignment concluded.

When he was named pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in North Philadelphia, he was told it was “a dying parish.”

But over the next 14 years of his pastorship, “and together with parishioners, we were able to make it a vibrant parish, along with the generosity of outside people,” Bishop Esmilla said.

He also cites the involvement of the nearby innovative private Catholic high school, Cristo Rey High School, that together “really saved the parish. It is a great partnership,” he said.

Next came a similar challenge albeit outside the city at St. James the Great Parish in Elkins Park. In 2021, he was asked to concurrently shepherd the faithful at St. Martin of Tours in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the efforts and involvement of parishioners St. James is “fully alive again,” said the bishop, and St. Martin Parish is active in service and prayer, which he regards as “a great blessing.”

These parish assignments along with St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philadelphia gave Bishop Esmilla a strong sense of the wide cultural diversity in the archdiocese. Among this rich sea were his own Filipino people, whom he served and unified in the area. In turn, they rallied around him in support of his parish assignments.

He continues to serve the Filipinos of the archdiocese at St. James, and he even serves Filipinos in the neighboring Wilmington Diocese with a monthly Mass at St. Elizabeth Parish in Wilmington.

He knows that serving people means meeting them where they are, addressing their needs and sharing the Gospel message of Christ’s love and mercy. And that means speaking the language of the people.

In addition to his native Tagalog language, Bishop Esmilla is fluent in English and has learned two other languages to serve the people of his parishes.

Aware that a fluency in Spanish would be helpful to serve the many Spanish-speakers in the archdiocese, in 2011 Bishop Esmilla studied the language in an immersion program in Bolivia. “I tried my best to know the language,” he said.

St. Martin of Tours Parish hosts a sizable number of Catholics from Brazil where Portuguese is spoken. “When a priest to celebrate Mass in that language for the faithful could not be found, I learned the language enough to celebrate Mass,” Bishop Esmilla said.

“Now Mass is celebrated in English, Spanish, Tagalog and Portuguese as we await a chaplain (to be assigned).”

The Portuguese language “is part of Philippine history, as Magellan brought the faith,” Bishop Esmilla said of the 16th century Portuguese explorer. “I wanted to embrace the people for what they have done for the Philippines,” he said.

Beyond using the language of the people in prayer, Bishop Esmilla leads them in service, which may point to the parishes’ success of late.

At St. James Parish, a ministry of seven parishioners and Bishop Esmilla travel once a month to Kensington to bring blankets, clothes and food provided by the Filipino organization LUSOB (Let Us Share Our Blessings).

And St. Martin Parish has a Charity and Solidarity Center in a former convent that offers anyone in the surrounding neighborhoods food, ESL classes (English as a Second Language) and spiritual support, all in the mission of “serving the poorest of the poor,” Bishop Esmilla said.

“Both parishes are alive, and we help people to deepen their faith in God,” he said. “People are praying and praising God, and that helps to deepen my faith. The people are helping the priest to become a holy, prayerful person.”

He continues to support the annual devotion to Santo Nino – an image of the Christ Child that is widely popular with Filipino Catholics – and for 20 years to lead the FIAT ministry (Filipinos in America Today) which rallies Filipinos in service.

In early February he returned with a local FIAT group visiting squatter settlements in the Philippines that has helped 500 families over the past 10 years to find housing and even college scholarships.

All of the service of his priestly and now episcopal ministry, joined intimately with deep prayer, reflects the words of his bishop’s motto: Sicut qui ministrat, which translated from the Latin means, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk. 22:27).