ROCK HILL — Oratorian Father Adilso Coehlo was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop David B. Thompson at St. Anne Parish last Saturday, Nov. 24. However, the young priest’s journey to religious life started much earlier.
Father Coehlo was born on March 18, 1969, in a small town in southern Brazil, Anitapolis.
As a boy, he played Mass with his brother and sister whom he said he got along with very well. The young Coehlo would act as the priest and his siblings would be the congregation. Sibling rivalry took on an interesting form when his sister became upset because she wanted to play the part of the priest.
His family later moved to Florianopolis, the island capital of Santa Catarina state. Here he encountered a bit of a lifestyle change as he said the streets were too busy to play outside, but when the school season started, the young man got involved in many activities.
As a youth Father Coehlo took music classes and was in a boys’ choir. He enjoyed performing, especially when the boys’ choir sang at Mass during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Brazil.
The choir was regionally famous and made several recordings. The members traveled to Italy, Germany, Colombia, Argentina, and twice to the United States for performances.
“His musical gifts have served him well in his ministries,” said Oratorian Father Joseph A. Wahl, the homilist at Father Coehlo’s first Mass following the ordination.
Father Coehlo credits an elderly priest from his home parish as his inspiration to enter religious life. The priest, a friend of the Coehlo family, was a musician whom Father Coehlo always admired. He served the priest as an altar boy.
He took the young Coehlo, with his parents’ permission, to a nearby minor seminary where they spent a week. He also helped his young admirer apply for admission to the seminary when he was only 11 years old. An enamored Coehlo returned from this seminary visit and asked his parents if he could study there. He told them how much he enjoyed the camaraderie of the boys at the seminary. However, once his studies began, he would miss his family.
“Like every beginning, that one was very hard,” said Father Coehlo. “I missed my friends and family a lot, but I was very happy in that new reality. I was allowed to visit my family every other month, and each time that I visited them, I had a big party waiting for me.”
His most difficult day at the seminary was when his parents unexpectedly came to pick him up. The purpose of their visit was to bring their son home for the funeral of his beloved friend and parish priest.
“I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was like I had lost the hero and inspiration of my life,” said the priest.
After the funeral he returned to his studies. But following the death of his mentor, Coehlo considered leaving the seminary. The priests and sisters at the seminary offered their guidance, and Coehlo decided to continue his priestly formation.
He spent three years there before transferring to another seminary far from home for high school studies. For three years at the new school, he was only allowed to visit his family twice a year, which the young man found to be difficult. He studied four languages (Latin, Greek, Spanish, and French) and worked in the fields for two hours every day.
“I was very happy when I finished that step of my journey,” he said.
In 1988, at age 19, he joined the Franciscans and entered their novitiate. He described that first year there as the most difficult during his religious journey. They weren’t allowed to leave the monastery, to receive letters, to watch TV, or to read the newspaper.
“I remember that when I finished that year and went home for vacation, I felt lost in the world,” he said.
After his first year at the monastery he began studying philosophy and music. Coehlo attended one school in the morning and another in the afternoon and on Saturdays taught music at a nearby school to earn money for his books.
“Those were wonderful years; maybe the most productive years of my life. At the end of those three years, I was very happy because I received two degrees at the same time. I can say that I was proud of myself,” said Father Coehlo.
In 1994 he took up his theological studies. While studying theology, he began to realize that having spent his entire life from age 11 in the seminary that he had not experienced life outside of religious confines.
Having spent his whole life in the seminary, Coehlo was nearing ordination time, but was feeling a need to experience a secular life. He talked with his family and gained their support; then he talked with the Franciscan superior who understood the young man’s position and granted him permission to leave.
“Two months before my ordination I left the monastery to start a new life,” he said.
He taught music in a Catholic school for six months; then a friend invited him to come to the United States. He enrolled in the University of Maryland and in a year finished their English program. After one Sunday Mass, he met a deacon who offered him a job in his liquor store. Coehlo worked there during this time and found a home away from home in the deacon’s family.
While gaining the experience of living outside the seminary, going to college and finding employment, the desire to be a priest never left him. He began to search for some form of community life where he could resume his studies for the priesthood. During that time he was living with a religious order called the Trinitarians as a prospect. He bought a book of all the Catholic religious groups in the United States and marked each that piqued his interest with an “x.” Among those marked with an “x” was The Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rock Hill.
He began calling the orders that interested him and received information about the various groups, but only one stuck out.
After brief visits, he spent a month discerning a possible Oratorian vocation in South Carolina. He applied for admittance and was accepted in 1998.
“Before starting my religious program with them, I went back to Brazil to talk with my family and friends,” said Father Coehlo. “Again, I received great support from all of them.”
After his canonical novitiate at the Rock Hill Oratory, he completed his theological studies at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, where he earned his master’s degree in divinity.
Since May he has served as a transitional deacon at St. Anne Parish and as the Oratorian liaison with the York County Hispanic communities.
On Nov. 25 Father Coehlo offered his first Mass at St. Anne’s. His parents traveled from Brazil to share in their son’s ordination and first Mass.
After a brief vacation back to his home in South America, Father Coehlo will take up priestly duties at St. Anne’s and in the Hispanic communities.
“I just started this step,” he said, “and already I can say that I think it’s going to be a great and deep experience in my life.”
This article was compiled largely from an autobiographical sketch by Father Adilso Coehlo.