God Given Gifts

Feb. 17-23, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 6
God Given Gifts
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
During Lent, the depths of one’s heart can be preoccupied with sadness remembering the suffering Jesus endured so He could earn salvation for everyone. The gift of joy can be overlooked as the faithful focus on penance and the sorrow of the crucifixion. But, there is plenty of room for joy in the life of the church as Catholics share their talents and gifts with the rest of humanity.

Maria DeSantis has been spreading musical joy around her community and many miles beyond for 26 years as part of the Mario DeSantis Orchestra. Though her father is truly “leader of the band,” Maria has been taking care of the professional business aspects for a number of years. Her vocal talents come from years of study and experience. She has performed at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception numerous times and considers her quartet’s monthly contribution at the Sunday 5:10 p.m. Mass one of the greatest joys of her career. Although she says she likes all types of music, songs like “His Eye is On the Sparrow” and “Go Light Your World” mean more to her than the rhythm and blues songs she sings from the 1960s and 70s.

“I believe our particular mission in terms of what we bring to the Cathedral is to marry the secular and the sacred together for worship,” DeSantis said. “Playing at the Cathedral brings us full circle.”

The Mario DeSantis Orchestra, now nearly 60 years old, has always been a part of Maria DeSantis’ life. “My father was involved with the dance band and orchestra. There would be 26 to 36 pieces involved. I would go to the rehearsals when I was little,” she remembered. Maria began with piano lessons from her grandfather at age 4. He came to Syracuse from Italy in 1919 and he founded the family’s music stores and helped form the keen business sense that was passed down to his son, Mario, and also to his granddaughter. Maria DeSantis has two brothers and two sisters who appreciate the family business and although they all have musical talent, she is the only child who performs.

“I was always performing for anyone who walked in the house,” Maria laughed. She began her stage career at age 8 with the Pompeian Players singing the role of Amaryllis from The Music Man. Her father was also music director for the schools of the Syracuse Diocese for decades and director of the Pompeian Players. He still plays 100 dates a year even though he’s in his mid-70s now. Steady perseverance and a strong head for business have lead to a successful professional music career for both father and daughter.

Maria attributes the orchestra’s success to the band’s diverse style and its ability to be intergenerational. They can play big band era numbers and Donna Summer — whatever the audience prefers. “Between my father and myself, we’ve got seven-plus decades of experience with music in a band,” Maria said.

She watched her father productively blend his business sense with his artistic ability and the lesson has stayed with her. “The success of the band is on many levels,” Maria said. “We cover a couple of generations. My father always taught me to apply sound business principles behind the scenes of the arts.”

Today that means that Maria is busy booking engagements, finding sponsors for the numerous festivals and concerts so that the audience can enjoy the music at no cost, and finding time to take care of herself and her voice. On any one given day she might get a call from the governor’s office followed by a call from a bride-to-be. She works hard to strike a balance for herself. A personal assistant helps both Maria and her father manage business affairs, but it is Maria who runs the operation. “Somebody’s gotta get out there,” she laughed, “because if you don’t do that, you might as well be playing in the basement.”

The orchestra has evolved into more than a performance opportunity for Maria. She is actually a musical events planner as well. If a bride wants anything from bagpipe to harp players, she can set it up; from a full orchestra to a duo, from Benny Goodman dance music to the Beatles rock and roll, she can make it happen. Though the list of events is varied, Maria has a special fondness for weddings. With her experience and faith, she brings an added dimension to wedding planning. She can help with everything from the ceremony to the rehearsal dinner and the reception. “It’s most exciting when I get to help select all the parts,” Maria said. Music and church go together for her family. The band played at St. Cecelia’s Parish 175th anniversary celebration this past year. The parish is where the family’s roots are, as well as the strong connection with Our Lady of Pompei Parish in Syracuse. Maria’s father was mayor of Solvay, home of St. Cecelia’s, for four years. The music added to church celebrations is the culmination of what she does, Maria explained. “Sometimes I think you can make the most difference in church,” she said. “Father Champlin [Cathedral rector] allows us to be our musical selves.”

The band members work together as a team, Maria said. They are together so much that it feels like a family. “We try to bring a reverent attitude to all our work,” Maria said. “We’re family-oriented. That’s what we’re about.” Though managing her career means she is busy, Maria manages to give back to her community using the gifts God gave her. “It’s your duty to take your gifts and use them in your community,” she said. “Without question, everyone has gifts. You just have to find the place for your talents.”

Finding a place for the artistic talent that lies within the students at Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School is another way of using God’s gifts. There are three art teachers at the school and a brand new arts center to house all the creativity that springs forth from the teachers and their talented students. Whether it is teaching a seventh grader to go easy on the water brushed on his first watercolor, or helping a senior mold a lump of brown clay into a pre-Columbian water jug, these teachers are able to share what they know.

Rhonda Bertollini Henderson teaches art at the high school level at Bishop Ludden. She is department chairperson and teaches drawing and painting. Her own work has been exhibited widely as she participates in art shows and competitions. Henderson loves the realism of art and appreciates the work of Robert Bateman and Andrew Wyeth. “I’m a wildlife artist by trade in my personal life, but I really can appreciate other artists as well, such as Salvadore Dali,” Henderson said. “In fact, I’m taking my drawing and painting two and three classes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Dali exhibit in March. We can’t wait.” The detail in her pastel and pencil wildlife drawings is stunning. One can count the eyelashes on the object in “Whitetail Deer” which she has prepared for an upcoming show.

The opportunity to watch the students’ love of art grow as they get more and more into the classes is something all three of the teachers enjoy. Karen Fenton teaches ninth grade studio art and photography. The visual arts are clearly an area she enjoys demonstrated by the art works on the walls of her new classroom. Her students have the opportunity to compete with each other and with adults through some of the area art shows. “Competing alongside one another gives them goals to set. These guys will get fierce,” Fenton laughed. The art teachers give them tools and the students use them to express themselves, she said. Most of Mary Norako’s seventh and eighth grade students are just beginning to explore the arts. “I want to spark their interest,” she said. Unlike those in the higher grades, her students are in class because it is a requirement. “It’s fun to watch the ones that don’t appear to have an interest, but who develop it over time.” Even though the seeds of gifts are planted by God, it takes work to make the gifts grow. As one of Henderson’s students said, “You have to be sort of good at it.”

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