When his BMW Roadster pulls up at the back of the church, the parking lot is already jam-packed. Folks dressed up like Eskimos have braved the biting cold to see the man some call “the super conductor”.
This Jersey Christmas ritual started some 26 years ago, when a charismatic priest and former student at The Manhattan School of Music, founded the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea. His name: Rev. Alphonse J. Stephenson. But most most people simply know him as “Father Alphonse”.
Stephenson formed his very first group of musicians in New York’s Theater District back in the eighties, while serving as assistant pastor at St. Malachy’s, the Actor’s Chapel. When his parochial duties were over for the night, you could find him moonlighting as a pianist at a Broadway hangout. He recalls that the confessions he would hear while playing, were often more truthful and candid than the ones he would hear in church.
FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT…
“Torn between Pit and Pulpit,” as People Magazine once put it, Stephenson joined a touring company to conduct more than 2,000 performances of “A Chorus Line”. In 1984, choreographer Michael Bennett tapped him to conduct the musical at the Shubert Theatre.
But tonight, there’s no “Tits and Ass” on the program, although the symphony orchestra effortlessly transitions from Beethoven to Broadway at the touch of a baton. In 2010, the orchestra and its conductor were featured on an ABC Christmas special: “A New York Holiday” alongside Cirque du Soleil and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.
FORCED TO BE HERE
A Father Alphonse Christmas concert is no ordinary affair. After opening with “Adeste Fidelis,” the conducting priest turns to the audience and thanks them profusely for coming. Then he asks: “How many of you have heard us before?” Almost the entire church raises their hand.
In this part of New Jersey, Christmas without Father Alphonse is like Thanksgiving without turkey. “How many of you are new to the orchestra?” he wants to know. A few hands go up in the air. But he isn’t done yet.
“Now, who was forced to be here tonight?” he asks. One brave man in his late fifties pleads guilty, only to hear the conductor follow-up with: “May I ask who forced you to be here?” Predictably, the man points a trembling finger at his wife.
That was the cue Father Alphonse had been waiting for.
“I am working on my next book,” he says with a grin on his face. “It’s called ‘The Joys of Celibacy. You see, I don’t have to go anywhere I don’t want to go.” The audience roars.
THE CANDY LADY
Father Alphonse once stopped his 45 musicians in the middle of a performance because a woman in the front row was struggling with a very loud candy wrapper. He turned around; asked her to come up to the stage with the sweets, and then he yanked the candy right out of her hands. Thankfully, she had a great sense of humor and the audience had a good laugh.
For years, the ‘candy lady’ always showed up to the same concert and had a front row seat. And at some point during the program, she handed the conductor a bag of sweets and he gave her home-made cookies.
Stephenson founded the Cecelia Foundation, a nonprofit group, giving professional quality musical instruments to deserving children who, in his words, “promise not to break them.” Proceeds of the sale of the orchestra’s CD’s go to the foundation, but a few years ago, their conductor surprised everyone with a new fund raiser. He published “Le Canzoni Della Cucina, Songs of the Kitchen”, a cookbook (+ CD) filled with Neapolitan and Sicilian family recipes he wrote with his cousin Antoinette Scillieri.
Though he was ordained in 1975 and always wears his clerical collar when conducting, he has never had his own parish, nor has he ever wanted one. Throughout the week, Stephenson wears a very different uniform. He used to be the Command Chaplain of the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard, Headquartered in Fort Dix. Two years ago he was promoted and left for the capital.
In June 2010, Father Alphonse assumed full-time duties as the Director of the Joint Chaplaincy Staff at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, VA. As the highest ranking officer, he is in command of the Army, Air Force and National Guard Chaplaincy.
A SPECIAL MISSION
Far away from the conductor’s podium, Brigadier General Stephenson is working hard to invigorate the evolving role of military chaplains in a nation at war. Although he takes his job extremely seriously, he likes to joke about it too.
He once told his audience: “As you may know, I was asked to come to Arlington. I can’t exactly tell you where I work; that’s a state secret. I can only reveal that the building has five sides.”
Music has and always will be a big part of his life. His orchestra usually plays in sold-out concert halls and churches, and gets standing ovations.
These are no ordinary concerts. For some audience members, seeing Father Alphonse conduct is almost… a religious experience!
Click this link to see a schedule of his 2012 Christmas concerts.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice