Antonio Illas has worn many cloths and fulfilled different duties to help others.
It’s just his nature.
Long before becoming a padre, he was a sergeant in the military and a federal agent with the U.S. government who responded to the plights of others.
He holds to that sacred trust today as a 50-year-old priest, coming to Auburn to help revive a struggling church and a multi-cultural congregation with many followers caught in the throes of poverty and other social challenges.
“It has always been in my mind and heart to help others … to honor faith, to honor and respect the dignity of others,” said the Rev. Illas, the new pastor at St. Matthew/San Mateo Episcopal Church, a parish that has been in the community for more than 120 years. “I strongly believe in bringing a prophetic voice … to help the poor, to help this community.”
Illas, who comes to Auburn after serving the church in parts of West Texas and Mexico, previously worked for the Diocese of Olympia. When he heard about the opening in Auburn and the city’s growing Latino and other ethnic populations, he welcomed the assignment and the chance to live closer to his daughter, Lizette, who works for the Transportation Security Administration.
“It’s an opportunity I look forward to,” Illas said of his task to restore St. Matthew/San Mateo, a parish that had been without a permanent rector for several years. “The church has been here since 1895, so there’s a legacy to honor and continue in Auburn. We have to look to the future. We have an opportunity to grow and expand … to keep this as a vibrant place doing service for a local community.”
Illas brings to the job the products of his lifetime call to duty — experience and perspective.
As a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve, which he still serves today, Illas supported humanitarian missions in the Dominican Republic and Kosovo. As a special agent for the government, he worked in four different departments over a 25-year career, starting with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and ending as an investigator for the Office of Homeland Security.
He worked in major cities – New York City, Chicago and Miami – and in his native Puerto Rico.
Illas graduated from Central Connecticut University with a degree in history. During his time as a federal agent, he married Cela Techamachaltzi Campos in New York City, and they raised Lizette.
A call to be a priest
After retiring from government work, Illas wanted to do more for his church. He entered the seminary, studied and became an ordained priest in 2013.
“I wanted to get more involved with my church,” Illas said. “My Biblical calling is to see God’s image in every other human being, no matter where I am, where I have traveled, no matter if the person has plenty or doesn’t have much.”
In Auburn, city and community leaders have embraced Illas, who has joined parish volunteers to find ways to do more with limited resources. The church and its modest facilities offer many needed and successful outreach programs and services for the parish and the community.
Illas is most concerned about the growing homeless population and the shortage of shelters, affordable housing and like services in the neighborhood.
“It’s an area we need to be more proactive as a faith community,” Illas said of the homeless. “It is a major issue, one we can’t turn our heads [away from]. … We need to contribute … and I think it can be done. There are resources out there.”
In his short time at St. Matthew/San Mateo, Illas and church members have addressed the hungry. The church – in conjunction with the Auburn Food Bank, and in partnership with the White River Buddhist Temple – begins offering weekly Tuesday evening community meals on Sept. 13.
The church’s participation fills a void, said Debbie Christian, food bank executive director. Other churches step up to serve community meals to hundreds of people on other nights. The weekly community supper program began more than 40 years ago, and in the last 15 years meals have come along to fill certain days, Christian said. The healthy meals, available to anyone in need, serve about 120 a night.
“I was very encouraged to meet and talk with Father Antonio and hear his heart to meet people’s most basic needs,” Christian said. “Once a person doesn’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, they can focus on another need in their life. Father Antonio wants to be able to help those needs as well. I’m excited to bring the Auburn Food Bank alongside to help them get started. Father Antonio’s enthusiasm is contagious.”
The meal program is just a start for a small church with big plans.
“It’s given us an opportunity to open our facilities to the community,” Illas said. “Yes, a great percentage of the people who will come for a meal are homeless, but we are getting – as I toured the many churches – single moms, senior citizens, all ages groups, even children.
“That was an eye opener for me,” he said of the many hungry, “but it’s an opportunity for this parish to become more involved – a lot closer – with the community and go beyond our four walls. Many parishes are just a community of faith, and they are there for the spiritual journey and religious needs, but I am very active and social-justice oriented. I believe my Christian tradition calls for me to do social justice.
“Jesus not only would preach but he would feed the masses, and he did not have a rock to lay his head on. He was basically homeless during his ministry. That touches my heart and my way of looking at the world.”
Illas said the church has a responsibility to help others.
“We are to love and to do something to provide for the have-nots, the ones who are need in society, no matter the situation,” he said.
“The work is never done,” he added. “One needs to be in tune to the needs of the moment. I am pretty sure the needs in Auburn today are not the needs 10 or five years ago. And the needs coming down the road in two, three years will change. We, as a community of faith, have to be in tune with what God is calling and what society needs today.”