Former Pompton Lakes parishioner returns 'home' to perform with new music ministry
By MICHAEL WOJCIK,
Bathed in a bright spotlight near the altar of St. Mary Church, Steve Monarque looks down at his guitar and starts strumming a strong, chugging rockabilly rhythm. After a few bars, the former parishioner begins singing the Lord's praises in his original song, "The Way" - "I will love you with all of my heart and all of my mind."
It was in the darkness of St. Mary Church, where Monarque - today a successful actor in Hollywood - sang every note of "The Way" and about eight other original songs as if he were leafing though the dog-eared pages of his own spiritual autobiography. During a special concert that night, the gifted musician pored out his soul through his spiritual songs - breezy and catchy folk-rock - that told of his difficult journey from lost sinner to a believer redeemed in Christ.
"I was a fool and a little disgraced," Monarque croons about his less-than-Christ-like past over the choppy chords of "The Way" while his wife, Kelly; his sister, Tricia Gerst; and guitarist Larry Morris sing harmony. Then the song turns more upbeat as he sings, "One day when the walls caved in, You (God) showed me the glory of your light ... Now I walk his way with all of my love and all of my joy."
The holiday concert marked a homecoming of sorts for the 47-year-old Monarque, a local boy who made good in Tinsletown. Born and raised in Pompton Lakes, he considers himself a child of St. Mary's, where he sang in the parish choir, learned religious studies and attended retreats. In the 1980s, the gifted actor left for California to pursue what turned out to be a successful show business career. He has appeared in the movies "Sixteen Candles" and "No Small Affair," and starred in the movie "Under the Boardwalk" and the sci-fi TV program, "Friday the 13th: The Series."
The yuletide concert - attended by more than 100 St. Mary's parishioners and the singer's friends and family - also debuted the Monarques' new Christian musical outreach, "Revelation the Music Ministry." For years, Monarque has been writing songs with deeply spiritual themes, which he and Kelly have been playing across the U.S. at state fairs, music festivals and coffee houses. Five of the songs played that night came from "Revelation," a seven-track CD they recorded in 2005.
That night Monarque transformed his nine separate original songs into a narrative about his difficult spiritual journey, sparked by intense study of the Bible. In between songs, he spoke in non-specific terms about his conversion to Christ, while Kelly read Scripture verses that helped illuminate the messages of the songs.
"'The Way' is a song of testimony," said Monarque, who is scheduled to appear in upcoming episodes of two TV series: "E.R." and "Close to Home." He added, "That was when I really understood what it was I had to do - to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, which is an easy thing to do." The audience at the Monarques' concert that night could have closed their eyes and, instead, imagined they were listening to the light melodic "pop" folk hits of the 1960s. Revelation's bright, clap-along melodies and lush harmonies recall classic folk tunes by Bob Dylan, the Seekers and Crosby Stills & Nash. A few of their rockabilly songs reach even further back to the 1950s to the styles of the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson.
"Revelation's sound is easily recognizable. It's comfortable folk. The melodies are wonderfully accessible. The music draws us to the love of Jesus Christ," the Rev. Hal Thornton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Elmwood Park, and a friend of Monarque's, told the audience. He added, "The lyrics were sensitively written and are an honest sharing of a man's discovery of God's love. They speak of our sense of God's presence in our lives."
For the Dec. 21 "homecoming" concert, Monarque invited a few "old friends" to play with him - bassist Jim Lucyk and Morris, whom he met years ago at St. Mary's. Another guest, Mel Johnson Jr., who appeared in the Broadway musical, "The Lion King," hushed the crowd to silence with his stunning a cappella version of "Our Father," one of the night's only songs not written by the Monarques.
Monarque revealed to the audience that part of his spiritual journey to Christ included accepting God's forgiveness. In his song, "Dear Father," he asks for it - "Dear Father, can you forgive me?"
"I come to you with a heavy heart ... I've done so many things that keep me apart from You," Monarque, a member of Our Lady of Malibu Parish in California, sings. Then after accepting God's forgiveness, he declares, "I will live the rest of my days for only You ... I'll never keep myself away from You."
After "Dear Father," Monarque explained his conversion further, "After a year (since accepting Christ), my old self was turning into my new self with God's grace. Now I walk with the spirit of truth in me and God's grace upon me."
Faith story set to music
In the middle of Revelation's set, Kelly also revealed some truths about her own spiritual journey, which she set to music on her song, "Set Me Free." Monarque played harmonica, recalling anthem-like Dylan classics such as "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
"I opened my eyes and I opened my heart," sings the 25-year-old Kelly, who earned a bachelor's degree in theater from Syracuse University and performed in college and regional theater productions. "Let that bright light shine on me...With you, I'm never alone ... Now I've finally been set free," she sings.
But "Set Me Free" only hints at Kelly's story as she told the eager audience a little more about it. "I was walking around seeking with an open heart and didn't know what I was really doing," said Kelly, who was raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., as a Protestant and later had become close friends with Monarque.
Kelly credited the Holy Spirit with changing her life and noted that meeting her future husband helped fulfill God's purpose that they together do His will. Married in late 2005, the pair met in New York City more than two years ago.
Monarque's faith journey started at St. Mary's, where he remembers Franciscan Father Michael Carnevalle, a former St. Mary's pastor, and Franciscan Father Kevin Downey, the current pastor, who was then a Franciscan brother.
"St. Mary's is my spiritual home," said Monarque, who returns to Pompton Lakes regularly and who said he learned much about music in the parish choir; earlier he formed a 1950s-style rock band with his brothers, Rick, Dave and Bill. About St. Mary's, he said, "It's a family-oriented parish where I can connect with friends. It all influences my music today."
A 'traveling ministry'
Monarque's songwriting started, when he wrote the script and the songs for a musical, "That's Life," which premiered in Hollywood in 2002. In the production, he played a down-and-out musician, who meets God in a karaoke machine and begins to turn around his life - a sort of "born again" experience, he said.
Monarque started picking up his guitar to write more personal songs that told the story of his own faith experience. After meeting Kelly, he discovered they shared a love of music. He also found out she could sing well. So they formed Revelation the Music Ministry, which is signed to an independent record label and since that time they have been spreading the Gospel, playing across the U.S.
"We are a traveling ministry," Monarque said. "People are touched and moved by the music, which is a stepping stone to the God's truth."
Revelation's music has also moved record-industry watchers, such as Bob Everthart of Tradition folk music magazine. He declares that the Monarques "have progressed through a series of adventures in their lives that has brought them to a remarkable conjunction of voices, inspiring lyrics and beautiful music."
The Monarques' pure enjoyment of spreading God's love through music shines through on "My Love Grows," one of the last songs of the concert, which ended with the singing of Christmas carols. One of the best songs of the night, the Beatles-inspired "My Love Grows," is powered by full, resonating harmonies.
"Walking down the street, my friend, and wondering which way to go ... See the people passing by with desperate emotions as they stare at the ground: empty pots of devotion," the Monarques sing, then quickly cut through the despair, "Yes, it shows - My love grows."