For William ‘Pila’ Tulua, it has been a lifetime of preparation for holy orders
By Patrick Downes Hawaii Catholic Herald
It’s been a long and winding road for William M. Tulua. But the end is in sight. Bishop Larry Silva will ordain the former medical assistant, ex-monk and veteran tour bus driver a deacon at 7 p.m. on the Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, in the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa.
The diaconate is his last major step before his priestly ordination next year.
“I have pondered from time-to-time, ‘Why me, Lord!’” Tulua told the Hawaii Catholic Herald last week by email. “I feel so inadequate at times.”
Despite those feelings, the 54-year-old seminarian of Tongan-Mexican descent has logged many years in occupations of service, prayer and study that have been good preparation for his new vocation.
Tulua was born in 1963 in San Jose, California, growing up where his grandparents lived amid cherry and apricot fields, long before the orchards were replaced by the tech buildings of Silicon Valley. He has seven brothers and two sisters.
After graduating from Cupertino High School, Tulua became a monk, spending time as a professed brother in the Brigittine Monastery of Our Lady of Consolation in Amity, Oregon.
There he placated a couple of appetites.
“I am a chocoholic,” he said, noting that the community of monks supported themselves by making and selling chocolate fudge and truffles. (They still do.) “That suited me just fine,” he said.
But Tulua also “loved the beauty of silence.”
“This enabled me to hear what God wanted in my life,” he said. “I was open to hear his call even though at times I was a little rebellious in hearing what he wanted out of me.”
He left the monastery and then “needed to figure out what to do.” So he attended Clayton College of Medical Assisting, where he said he “excelled in the paperwork and back office procedures.”
He came to Hawaii in 1986 to attend Hawaii Loa College in Kaneohe, first living with an aunt to become acclimated to his new home.
Tulua’s intention was to continue working in the medical field as a physician’s assistant. “I wanted to help people,” he said.
However, his inability to grasp the required math studies “pretty much killed that aspiration,” he said.
So he switched his major to pre-theology, eventually earning a bachelor’s of religious studies.
“At least I would be able to help people by working in a parish,” he said. “That was the thought at the time, but I believe it was the Holy Spirit who had different plans.”
While at Hawaii Loa College, Tulua worked Saturdays for Polynesian Adventure Tours as a bus driver. By the time he finished his studies he was working full-time.
He said being employed in the tourist trade forced him to break out of his “shell.”
“I am still pretty much a very quiet person,” he said while thanking the Holy Spirit for putting him in a position where he had to speak to strangers. He ended up working in the visitors’ industry for 23 years.
Thoughts of priesthood
Initially, it was not Tulua’s idea to become a priest. After leaving the monastery, he did not think himself worthy of such a high calling. It was a friend who suggested he enquire about it.
So he spoke to the diocesan vocation director at the time, Father Peter Dumag. After “finally” filling out the paperwork, he completed the required psychological, physical and background checks.
The last hurdle was an interview with Bishop Larry Silva.
“After the interview, Father Peter told me to wait in his office,” Tulua said. About 20 minutes later Father Dumag walked in “with a stern look on his face.”
He extended his hand. “‘Congratulations!’ he told me. ‘You will be going to Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology.’” That’s a seminary in Wisconsin for older vocations.
“I told him, ‘I know, I have been talking to the seminary for about three months already,’” Tulua said.
He said Father Dumag smiled and asked how he knew he was going there.
“I said, ‘I have faith!’” Tulua said.
The interview took place in mid-June 2010. School started in August. He had six weeks to “close his apartment and get rid of much stuff I had.”
While in formation at the seminary in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, he attended Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee for a couple of years to fulfill some college credits that had been left undone or were not transferrable.
He has been at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology for seven years, and has one more year of formal studies to go.
Part of his priestly training included Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Queen’s Medical Center.
CPE taught him how to help people of many different faith traditions who are in the hospital for many different reasons.
“Learning how to care for many people was a worthwhile and challenging time,” he said.
Tulua, who goes by the nickname Pila, also spent a “pastoral year,” 2015-2016, assisting at St. Elizabeth Church in Aiea.
“I lived at the old rectory on the campus and loved it,” he said. “It was quiet except for the occasional football games” at nearby Aloha Stadium.
At St. Elizabeth, Tulua helped with the homebound and hospital ministries, collection counting and food outreach. He also had an opportunity to share his talents as an organist and choir director.
“I loved the people of Saint Elizabeth’s! They made me feel welcome and they have a special place in my heart.”
There will be soon be more parish communities in Tulua’s path ahead. But he is not worried because he knows the one who brought him this far is leading the way.
“I give my all to God the most high to do what he wishes,” he said. “I have my frailties, but I thank God for allowing me to persevere this long.”