Michael Fontana has dedicated the past 30 years of his life to producing and directing pastoral music in the Roman Catholic tradition. He also has a rich background in music as a composer — having published his first piece of organ music at the age of 18 — and has continued to compose, with several pieces published last year.
Fontana, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and attended Mass at St. Rosalia-Regina Pacis Parish, recently took over as Director of Music Ministries at St. Francis de Sales in Belle Harbor. In addition, Fontana also serves as Campus Minister for Music and Faith Formation at St. John’s University. The multi-talented Fontana also served as Senior Adjunct Lecturer at St. Francis College from 2003 to 2021.
One of his former St. Francis College students, Sheridan Pollonais, credits Fontana with reigniting her passion for playing and performing music. “It was the way he would passionately teach that was so enlightening,” said Pollonais. “After only one semester with him as my professor, I can confidently say that he made me a better person. He didn’t only make me love music even more, but he also taught my class and I so many valuable life lessons.”
Pollonais sent Fontana a heartfelt goodbye letter upon his departure from St Francis College, thanking him for his inspiration and guidance. She closed the letter with Fontana’s familiar catchphrase to his students, “Be happy.”
Before taking over the music ministry at St. Francis de Sales in February 2022, Fontana was the music director at Good Shepherd Parish in Brooklyn from September 1991 to January 2022. His liturgical responsibilities included planning and playing music for all parish liturgical celebrations and events; including all weekend and Holy Day Masses and all Sacramental liturgies such as First Reconciliation and First Communion, Confirmation, weddings, and funerals, where he directed a 30-voice youth choir and helped develop, coordinate and train enrollees in the volunteer cantor program.
Fontana and his wife have three children, and in addition to all of his current responsibilities, on July 1, he began serving as the Chairman of the Music Commission for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Fontana earned his graduate degree in music composition at The City College of New York. He is proud of the eight pieces he has published from 1981 to the present.
“Most of what I’ve had published are small organ pieces, but I’ve written larger pieces as well – orchestral pieces, chamber music, choral pieces,” explained Fontana, who is dyslexic and has ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), a learning disability which he says helped him develop a skill for improvising, and ultimately writing down what he was creating.
He said that he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with some renowned musicians while at City College. He also developed an affinity for jazz history after taking an undergraduate course at Kingsborough Community College with John Lewis, the noted jazz pianist, composer, and director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
After receiving his graduate degree from City College, Fontana and his wife Deborah moved to California so that he could study composition at California State University with Cuban composer Aurelio de la Vega and composer and conductor Daniel Kessner. He remained in California for four years, “but after the second earthquake, I said to my wife, ‘Let’s get out of this place.’ ”
Fontana credits The Tablet with helping him land his first job upon his return to Brooklyn. “My wife and I had moved in with my mom and dad, and I was reading The Tablet, and there was a job for a music teacher at OLPH (Our Lady of Perpetual Help High School) in Sunset Park. I landed the job and stayed there for two years until the school closed,” he recalled.
After being approached to substitute for a friend at Good Shepherd, he ultimately landed a position there. “Now, here’s God’s plan; tell me God doesn’t have a plan for everyone. So, I substituted and was playing the weekly Saturday night Mass during the homilies when I picked up the bulletin and started reading that they were looking for a music director,” recalled Fontana. “I went home and submitted my resume, and within a few days, I had the job. That was in the summer of 1991, and I held the job for 30 years until 2022.”
During his tenure at Good Shepherd, he inspired many choir members with his skills and passion. Fontana currently oversees a 23-member choir at St. Francis de Sales, many of whom followed him when he left Good Shepherd.
“I have been fortunate enough to sing with Michael for the past 12 years both at Good Shepherd in Brooklyn and now at St. Francis de Sales,” said Patrice Edison. “Singing with him is a prayerful practice, and we are constantly reminded that we sing to improve the worship experience of the congregation and to create a welcoming, joyful environment.”
Eileen Hausser joined the Good Shepherd choir in 2008 and refers to it as “Michael Fontana’s choir.”
“I never expected the level of professionalism that Michael displays,” she said. “Michael brings the best out in each of us. The choir, I realized, was a family with Michael as its rock.”
Hausser was another choir member who ultimately followed him to St. Francis de Sales. “Thankfully, most of the choir felt the same,” said Hausser. “So, the family continues and grows with the SFDS family under the masterful and loving leadership of Michael Fontana. I truly love, admire and respect him,” added Hausser.
Twenty-five-year choir member Carol Nuzzo credits Fontana and his Good Shepherd Church choir for helping her reaffirm her faith in God and attend Mass regularly. New to the neighborhood at the time, she happened to hear choir voices permeating from the church and went inside to see where the music was coming from.
“It was absolutely heavenly, and I just wanted to be a part of this choir under his direction,” recalled Nuzzo.
Nuzzo said that Fontana is extremely passionate about his music. “It is quite evident that his music brings joy to people wherever he goes. While we take a much-needed break for the summer, we cannot wait to see what “maestro” has in store for us next season,” she added.
Fontana revealed a simple recipe for building a successful ministry: “We don’t sing, we pray with our music. Every note has to have a purpose in the liturgy. … Like St. Augustine said, ‘those who sing pray twice.’ ”
Marianne Einhorn calls working with Fontana at St. Francis de Sales a joyful experience. “He’s the best! You can’t help responding to his caring warmth and humor as he encourages you to be the best singer you can possibly be, all the while creating an atmosphere of artistic spirituality. As Michael so often says to us, ‘We pray musically, we don’t perform.’ ”