Ernest Dwyer Sillers

October 2, 1910 – October 15, 2009

The Rev. Canon Ernest Dwyer Sillers “retired” in 1975 after overseeing construction of a church building and establishing a new school at St. Mark’s Church in Downey, California. Then he went on to plant two churches and three additional Episcopal schools in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Sillers, known throughout 65 years of ordained ministry as a visionary priest with a passion for education and a penchant for planting both churches and schools, died October 15, 2009, a few weeks after celebrating his 99th birthday.

“He truly embodied ‘if you build it, they will come.’ He built these schools and churches on a shoestring, with so few resources they were barely keeping the places afloat,” said the Rev. Canon Robert Edwards, rector of St. Margaret of Scotland Church in San Juan Capistrano, one of two churches Sillers planted in Orange County.

Edwards described how Sillers was a master at “getting everyone on the same page, with the same goal, all moving in the same direction” when also starting a school at the San Juan Capistrano location. “If you look at St. Margaret’s now, you can’t imagine that this place was a field with portables when he started it. Now there are over 1,200 students.”

Most importantly, Edwards added, Sillers loved children. “No matter what he was doing, who he was talking to, he’d take time to stop and greet children,” he recalled.

Chris Lincoln, middle school principal at St. Mary and All Angels School in Aliso Viejo, another institution founded by Sillers, said the 99-year-old would want to be remembered “for touching the lives of thousands of children, introducing them to the love of Jesus Christ. That made him happiest. He’d say that he didn’t have any children of his own — and then he’d add, ‘But I have a couple thousand.'”

Starting schools “is not easy and the man started four, it was a miracle in itself,” Lincoln said during a telephone interview on October 16.

“He was a man of incredible faith,” he added. “If you ever had questions or doubts and I had plenty, he was always there. He had unshakable faith. It was amazing to be around him.”

Bishop Robert C. Rusack named Sillers an honorary canon of the Diocese of Los Angeles in 1980.

Sillers was born October 2, 1910 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Eventually, he emigrated to the United States and first arrived in California at age 16 as a ninth grade school dropout to visit a sister living in Pasadena.

He credited his schoolteacher mother’s influence with inspiring him to return to school, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in theology from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, in June 1936. He also was enrolled in graduate studies in philosophy at the University of New Hampshire and part-time coursework at the Episcopal seminary at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After a brief stint as a Baptist minister, he was ordained to the Episcopal diaconate on June 12, 1941 and to the priesthood on December 1 of that year by Bishop John Thomas Dallas of New Hampshire.

He became rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Ashland, New Hampshire, where he remained until 1943. Prior to returning to California in 1954, he also served two Massachusetts congregations.

Upon Sillers’ return to the Los Angeles diocese, then-Bishop Eric Bloy appointed him vicar of St. Bartholomew’s Mission in Pico Rivera. Within two years, the congregation had doubled in size.

In 1960, Sillers became rector of St. Mark’s Church in Downey, where he built his first church structure and founded his first school, serving preschoolers through eighth graders. He retired after 15 years of service at age 65.

But retirement only inspired the dynamic priest, whose life was chronicled in Ernest Sillers: Story of a Visionary, by Lisa Merryman (Cathedral Center Press, Los Angeles, 2006), to further activity.

A few months later, he began developing St. Margaret of Scotland church and school in San Juan Capistrano, a growing Orange County community about 56 miles south of Los Angeles. By the end of 1975 he was priest-in-charge of the church.

He gathered interested families from the Capistrano Valley on March 9, 1979 to discuss the possibility of opening a school. Less than six months later, on October 1, Sillers and his wife Aldine, the school’s founding librarian, welcomed 79 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and School.

He established a building committee and began searching for a location that at times left him “disheartened because land was so expensive” he recalled during a 2007 interview. Eventually, he acquired seven acres for $180,000 and in 1981, ground was broken for a permanent church and a school building. As the facility grew, a hall was added and named in his honor. The school grew rapidly. A ninth grade was added in 1982, and four years Sillers addressed 26 members of the first high-school graduating class.

“We had 90 students the first year and now there are 1,200,” Sillers recalled during the 2007 interview. He stayed an additional year as vicar of the mission.

He also served as a diocesan Commissioner of Schools and was named an honorary Cathedral Canon in December 1980 by Bishop Robert Rusack.

Still impassioned with a vision for educating youth, he went on to develop St. John Chrysostom Church and School in Rancho Santa Margarita in 1986.

The church’s first services were attended by about 55 people in a trailer nestled in the lap of the Santa Ana Mountains in the yet-to-be-developed Foothill Transportation Corridor in Orange County, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The school opened in 1987 with 250 students in two modules and has grown to about 800 students in six permanent buildings.

At age 84, he launched St. Mary and All Angels School with a single trailer on land loaned from the Mission Viejo Company in the newly constituted Orange County community of Aliso Viejo. The preschool-through-8th-grade school began with 79 students in four portable trailers and now has 800 students, according to Sillers’ friend Linda Bratcher, head of program at the school, who has served alongside him since his days in Downey.

Despite failing health in recent months, Sillers had continued to serve St. Mary’s as headmaster emeritus, maintaining office hours to meet with parents, students and teachers until about two weeks ago, according to Chris Lincoln.

Although his wife, Aldine Leona Fosket Sillers, died in 2004, Ernest Sillers continued his legacy. In 2007, at a 97th birthday celebration attended by about 800 former and current students, parents, friends and parishioners, Sillers told The Episcopal News, publication of the Diocese of Los Angeles, that he intended to reach 100 years of age and to complete one last “cradle to grave” mega-project, for which he had already acquired 150 acres of land in nearby San Clemente.

That project was intended to include low-income housing and assisted living residences for seniors, a hospital, educational facilities for preschoolers through college students and both Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, as one thriving community all learning with and from each other.

He is survived by a host of adoring friends.

A memorial service will be held at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, October 23, 2009 at St. Margaret of Scotland Church, 31641 La Novia Avenue in San Juan Capistrano. The school will be closed that day in Sillers’ honor.