Leon and Theophila Philippi
Leon Frederick Philippi was born on January 19, 1927, on his parents’ farm near Bruning, Nebraska, the third of four children. Leon’s parents were strong Christians and raised their children in the values of hard work, scrupulous honesty, and generosity. These traits were tested and strengthened during the harsh years of the Great Depression, when dust storms, drought, and uneven markets threw the family increasingly on its own resources and on the generosity of various neighbors. In 1944 Leon enrolled at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, as a pre-seminary student. Leon’s grades were by his own admission “not good,” and in the winter of 1945-46 the university dean suggested that Leon take a break from academics and volunteer in the mission field. Volunteers were being sought by the American Lutheran Church (ALC) to rebuild mission stations in New Guinea that had been destroyed during World War II, and Leon accepted the proposal. Leon arrived at Lae, New Guinea, in October 1946, and remained on the island until April 1949.
Some of Leon’s projects included constructing church offices and a guesthouse at Lae; rebuilding a road and installing a pump and pipeline at Malalo; dismantling abandoned U.S. Army facilities at Finschafen for building material; building a mission station and school for the Chinese at Madang; building a hospital at Yaguam; building a school at Baitabag; and building many houses.
Following the completion of his work in New Guinea, Leon returned to the U.S. with a layover in Sydney, Australia, where he and another of his crew stayed with Pastor Chris W. Stolz for eight weeks. This gave Leon enough time to get acquainted with the pastor’s daughter, Theophila, with whom he corresponded following his return to the U.S. Leon returned to Nebraska, working on his father’s farm and earning money for college on construction projects. He graduated from Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1954. Leon was ordained on June 20, 1954, in a ceremony where he was also commissioned as a missionary of the ALC for assignment to New Guinea.
Leon then rejoined Theophila in Australia after a five-year separation, where they were married in 1954. The couple then moved on to New Guinea to start their mission work. Theophila had trained as a nurse in Australia and her medical skills were much needed in the field. The Philippis were first stationed at Ega before moving to Banz in the highlands in early 1955. In June 1956 they were transferred to Begesin on the coast, where they remained until November 1961. Special projects at Begesin included the establishment of a leprosy treatment program in early 1961. Leon himself suffered from leprosy between 1962 and 1966 but was subsequently cured.
Theophila Philippi working at the dispensary, ca. 1970s.
In November 1962 the Philippis were placed in the mission station at Rintebe in the central highlands. In February 1964 they moved nine miles to Bena Bena, where they remained until November 1968. The Philippis returned to Bena Bena following the second furlough and remained there until Leon’s departure from the mission field on January 7, 1972. Leon had announced his resignation as a missionary on October 10, 1971. He voiced concern that the church in New Guinea was not being turned over rapidly enough to the natives. Following Leon’s resignation the Philippis moved to Australia. There, Leon became a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Australia and was called to serve a parish at Ropeley in Queensland.
This series documents the career of the Rev. Leon Philippi and his wife Theophila from his days as a lay missionary in the Territory of New Guinea, through his career there as an ordained missionary, and ending with his resignation from the mission field in early 1972. Records are from 1944-2005 with the bulk dating from 1946-1971. Types of materials include letters from family and friends in U.S. and Australia, Leon and Theophila’s courtship letters and materials relating to their 1954 wedding, other correspondence, maps, newspaper clippings, and photographs and audiotapes.