Bob Fontana has been a fixture in our parish for years. He went to school at Mount Carmel, he and his family are lifelong parishioners and he has been a part of the music ministry since the 1980s. But at the “ripe old age” of 53, Bob says it’s time for a change. So, for the person that likes to make people smile, he hopes to do that at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
How did you develop a love for music and singing?
I have always loved singing and music. I grew up knowing all the words to every Carpenters song ever made (they were the No. 1 singing group of the ’70s). I took guitar lessons but was never very good because I never practiced. I know how to play piano and I own a piano, but once again I never mastered it because of lack of practice. I love singing and took voice lessons over a two-year period, I learned a lot about breathing, diction and phrasing. I joined the choir in 1988. It has been a thrill singing with such a wonderful, warm and devoted group of people. I went to many cantor workshops over the years, which really helped me develop and grow as a cantor.
What are you feeling when you lead the church in song?
I can’t really answer that, since it depends on the music and the mood at that time. I am not a performer; I am a human with emotions and feelings. The liturgy team at Mount Carmel is incredible (the best I have ever seen), so they set things into motion with the readings, the decor and, of course, the music. I am a cantor; it is my task to lead the people in the music of the liturgy. I am a leader and I am part of the congregation. What you see is 100 percent genuine. I am not acting or pretending. I get the best and warmest feeling when I make contact with people during the music. I love to see people singing because I am not a soloist, I am just the leader. Making eye contact and seeing smiles and other expressions of emotion, that is so incredible. Sometimes, the words in the music or the expression on a parishioner’s face gets me. Sincerity, emotion and connection are all the elements of a good liturgist and liturgy. I think we get that at Mount Carmel.
You and your family are intertwined with the parish. Your father is an usher, your mother a greeter and you are a cantor and attended grammar school here. What does this parish mean to you?
Mount Carmel is home. I graduated from Mount Carmel School 40 years ago (Class of 1976). I was an altar boy for years. So many family celebrations (weddings, funerals, sacraments) have been made at Mount Carmel. I used to attend the early morning Mass as often as I could before the school day started. Aside from the familiar surroundings are the parishioners. I get such a warm feeling from them. I get so much more than I give the church. The church is not the building, it is the people getting together in community prayer, That’s what Mount Carmel is, a community. I feel so blessed to be part of such a welcoming and dynamic community. I fear that when I move every other church will pale in comparison to Mount Carmel.
You are a faith-filled individual. Did someone instill that in you or did you learn it on your own?
Funny, I think my mom was the one who really instilled that in me. It’s funny because she was a lifelong Methodist until she married my father (a lifelong Catholic). She converted to Catholicism and really embraced and embodied what it is be a Catholic. As children, she always got us to Mass each Saturday night. She still urges her children and grandchildren to get to church. She instilled in us that God should be a part of our lives every day. She is the most Christian person I know. If a friend needs something, like a ride to the hospital for a cancer treatment or some special prayer, she gets it done. She is really the best example of a Catholic and Christian that I know. I try to follow her example.
At one time you considered becoming a priest and spent the summer of 1975 at St. Charles Seminary on Staten Island. Was it a hard decision to turn away from that choice?
Yes and no. I really wanted to serve, and I believed for several years that my calling was to become a priest. I am confident that I would have been a very good priest. God spoke to my heart and told me that I could serve the church in other ways. I loved music and had a strong faith. Entering the music ministry ended up being my calling. I really feel that God gave me the guidance. In looking back, I think the right path was followed. I have been blessed to touch so many lives through music at Mount Carmel, Masonic Home, the Vatican (2012 pilgrimage) and other venues.
Sadly for the parish, you plan to retire and move to Orlando. How did that decision come about?
I am not really retiring. I am leaving New York state service. Thirty years as a government employee is a long time. I am looking forward to the start of a new journey. For as long as I can remember, I have planned on settling down in the Orlando area. From the time we were children, my parents took us to Florida every other year for vacations. I have a passion for Disney and I hope to work for that company in guest relations (God willing). I love people, I love smiles, I love happy faces, so Disney seems like the place I should be. There are no guarantees, but that’s my dream. I would love the opportunity to make people happy. I also am active (running, cycling, hiking), so New York winters are stifling; just another reason to make the move.
Is it a tough choice, leaving the place and parish where you grew up and worshipped?
Leaving Mount Carmel is probably one of the most difficult things about the move. However, I really hope to take the parish with me. I want to cantor at a church in the Orlando area. I feel I still have a lot to offer a church. Hope everyone here keeps me in their thoughts and prayers.
What will you miss most?
I will miss family and friends the most. They know where I live and I am only a two-hour flight away. Maybe some of my family will eventually follow me down to Florida; we will see. I hope to cantor at Mount Carmel when I come to visit in New York.
What’s the best advice anyone gave to you?
I grew up obese and did not have many friends. I suffered a lot of verbal and physical abuse from people who could not accept me. That really impacted me and has taken me many years to work through the scars to my self-esteem. I remember coming home after school in tears wondering why people could not accept me for who I was. I had a good heart full of love, yet for many, my exterior seemed to be all that mattered. I lamented in having few friends. I will never forget the words my mom said to me one night as I sat in solace. She said, “Don’t worry. It’s not about having a lot of friends; it’s about having some really good friends.” To this day, that is at the core of who I am.
What’s the best advice you can give to someone?
I am a firm believer in being a sincere follower of Christ. We need to live as He wants. We need to be a blessing in each other lives. We need to give ourselves to each other, especially those in bad circumstances (health, financial, emotional). The Lord has given each of us gifts; they are not ours to keep. They should be shared. We all need to be the best that we can be. The definition of a person’s success is not about how much money they earn, but about the impact they make in the lives of others. Jesus took up the cross for us; we should now take up that cross for others. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Occupation: Health program administrator, New York State Department of Health Division of Hospital and Diagnostic and Treatment Centers.
Education: St Mary’s on South Street, St Mary of Mount Carmel, Clinton High School, AAS in business management from Mohawk Valley Community College, BS in accounting and MS in computer science from SUNY.
Family: Father Robert, mother Gail, sister Debra, brother Michael. Cats Max and Winston.
Things you like to do in your spare time: Running, weight lifting, cycling, cooking and baking, spending time with Max and Winston.
Favorite movies: Disney animated musicals.
Favorite TV show: “Once Upon A Time.”
Favorite music: 1980s pop (Elton John, Billy Joel, Cher, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, etc.)
Favorite quote: “Every day, be a blessing in someone’s life.”