By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
Father Joseph Champlin’s Guardian Angel Society gets “down to earth” — on a busy, scuffed-up dance floor.
“Sweet Cabaret,” a fundraiser for the Society, is a Feb. 11 evening of dining, dancing, and desserts to celebrate 20 years of providing scholarships and mentor services for children at four diocesan schools.
The band for the event — the DeSantis Orchestra — plays weddings and other events all over Central New York. The Feb. 11 gala is the band’s favorite dance event of the year without question, because it honors “Father Champlin’s spirit; it’s down to earth,” said Maria DeSantis, the band leader, vocalist, and producer of the show.
DeSantis recalled that Father Champlin, who died in 2008, used to bring all kinds of music to Mass. She knows because she used to play in a quartet for the evening Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception when Father Champlin was the rector.
If his spirit is timeless, so are the tunes that the orchestra — which includes eight horns and seven vocalists for this event — will play: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, Elvis Presley, the Temptations, the Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, James Brown, Frankie Valli, Michael Steven Bublé, Van Morrison, and many more. The musical styles, if not the dancing itself, will be dizzying.
“They dance to what they know,” DeSantis said of the crowd, “that’s the key. … It’s all about dancing; it’s not a concert; it’s not a symphony; it’s all about dancing … and Father’s kids.”
More than $2 million has been raised for Father Champlin’s kids in 20 years, said Kathy Fedrizzi, executive director of the society. “We provide tuition scholarships for at-risk financially challenged families,” she said.
The Guardian Angel Society gives out close to 100 scholarships each year to students at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP), Bishop Grimes Junior-Senior High School, Bishop Ludden Junior-Senior High School, and Christian Brothers Academy, Fedrizzi said.
“If they start in kindergarten, we stay with that child till the 12th grade,” she said. “A scholarship for one kid can be for 12 years as long as the child stays in the Catholic-schools system.”
“It’s like a festival of nations,” she said. The scholarship recipients include refugees from many countries and children from “diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.”
“The goal was to build an organization that would be here in our community forever,” Fedrizzi said.
Every scholarship recipient pays according to a sliding scale based on family size and income; it could be as little as $20 per month. “I have seen incomes as low as $10,000 or less,” she said.
The Society supports about 100 students per year, including mentoring for academic and social skills. Their families may receive $200 up to $2,000, depending on need. This year the Society awarded $80,000, Fedrizzi said. The money comes from “Sweet Cabaret” — $95 per person — and other fundraisers that are mentioned at GuardianAngelSoc.org.
Every year Fedrizzi will get a couple of calls from parents — some of them tearfully grateful — at award time.
“I say, ‘Yes, this is what it’s all about,’” Fedrizzi said. “Families are grateful, and they know what they’re getting, and there’s an appreciation factor with that.”
Also appreciative is Sister Helen Ann Charlebois, IHM, principal of Cathedral Academy at Pompei, a school for pre-K to sixth grade.
“They help keep us going, literally,” Sister Helen Ann said of the Guardian Angel Society, “because they’re a major financial [backer] for everything that we try to do. They also supply … mentors for kids who need a little extra attention.”
This year, Sister Helen Ann said, CAP has 90 students, and 57 of them are directly supported by the Society.
Some of CAP’s students are studying English as a second language, and the Guardian Angel Society helps the summer-school program so that kids can get more practice with the written word of English. The afternoons are filled with science, math, and writing/dancing, Sister Helen Ann said.
Overseeing the society’s summer-school program is Catherine Ranieri, the part-time education coordinator and overseer of the mentoring program. She also writes grant applications. In five years, she said, the society has received close to $40,000 in grants to support summer school and other Guardian Angel programs including literacy instruction for incoming sixth-graders.
“I believe every child should have a mentor,” Ranieri said.
“We provide them mentors and tutors that are [professionals] and leaders in the Central New York community,” said Sarah Ioele, who chairs the Guardian Angel Society’s board.
“We want our children to have exceptional life skills and be exceptional human beings,” she said.
Graduates have gone on to schools such as Syracuse University, Georgtown, Notre Dame, Le Moyne, and Onondaga Community College. In the next 20 years, Ioele hopes that the Guardian Angels can help more and more students become cultured citizens with high values.
Helping to make that possible will be “Sweet Cabaret,” which aims to attract 300 attendees this year.
Ioele views “Sweet Cabaret” as an “elegant and classy … chance to gather and celebrate our children.”
The DeSantis band plays virtually anything that the Guardian Angel Society — including Father Champlin’s spirit — smiles upon.
Ranieri remembers that Father Champlin always hosted “Sweet Cabaret” and beamed when young students of the Society came and talked about their experiences.
“He used to say that people came to church for the preaching and the music, and so he really worked at it,” DeSantis said.
The music-loving priest wasn’t out on the dance floor though; he was busy chatting with the crowd.
“And isn’t that what a good host does?” Ranieri said.
What: Fundraiser for Father Champlin’s Guardian Angel Society. Dinner, dancing, and desserts. Two complimentary bottles of wine per table.
Music: DeSantis Orchestra dance mix featuring the “Celebrate 20” All Stars. Vocalists: Keith Condon, Gary Branch, Lisa Gentile, Isreal Hagan, Joe Whiting, Maria DeSantis, Michael Ranalli
Tickets: $95 per person.
When: 7-11:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11.
Where: Grand Ballroom, Marriott Syracuse Downtown.
Contact: For reservations, sponsorship, and advertising, call (315) 422-7218 or visit GuardianAngelSoc.org.