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After 70 years, Holy Angels organist has the keys to happiness

Holy Angels Church, which has towered over Porter Avenue since 1875, was built to last.

The church's organists are, too.

Robert Chambers, Holy Angels' current organist, has been on the job for 70 years. In October, he announced his retirement, effective at the end of this year. But his fellow parishioners have been trying, with some success, to persuade him to rethink that decision. After all, if Chambers retired, it would mean the end of an era. His mother, Frances, held the job before he did. She was appointed organist in 1912.

That is well over a century's worth of "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," all played by an organist named Chambers. Not to mention Latin hymns. In 1947, when Bob Chambers made his debut, the Mass was still in Latin, and would be for another 15 years.

"What happened was, my mom got sick, and Father McFadden said to me, 'It is not necessary for your mother to get a substitute.' He was very adamant," laughed Chambers, now 86. He imitated the priest's commanding tones. "It is not necessary to get a substitute. You will play."

He was ready. He had been allowed to practice in the organ loft, appreciating the glorious instrument. The Grey Nuns, who ran Holy Angels along with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, appreciated music. An old Grey Nun used to listen in while he practiced.

She would tell him, "Bobby, you play so beautifully."

"I was encouraged by that," Chambers said, reminiscing in the office of the rectory, where he serves as administrative assistant.

His professional life has not been limited to the church. For 40 years, Chambers taught English and Latin at Bishop Timon High School. He also served as principal of the school, from 1967 to 1992.

Maybe it helped having a twin brother who was a police officer and another brother who was a monsignor. Because at Timon, he radiated such strength and power that students nicknamed him "the Rock."

"Don't mock the Rock" went the saying, and with good reason.

"Bob Chambers was so widely respected by the students of Timon that all he ever needed to do to quiet a crowd of 800 or more students was to simply stand at the front of the auditorium and fold his arms," marveled 1986 alumnus Marc Pasquale. "Within seconds, the auditorium came to an immediate silence."

The principal was famously devout.

"Mr. Chambers was in all things representative of an outstanding Catholic gentleman and to his students he was a powerful role model," Pasquale reflected. "He attended Mass daily and could often be found in the chapel praying the Rosary."

Chambers, by all accounts, plays the organ as well as he ever did.

"He's extremely talented and versatile," said the Rev. Fred Voorhes, one of countless priests who has crossed his path.

But his arthritis now prevents him from climbing the steps to the organ loft. He has to play a Yamaha keyboard. "It does the job," he said, "but it's not the same." The last time he played the organ was last Christmas.

"The priest said to me, 'The problem is, Bob, you sing beautifully, you play beautifully, but now you're having trouble getting around.' "

But even with physical challenges, Chambers is still "the Rock."

Seated at the rectory desk across from a portrait of St. Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Oblate order, Chambers looks cool and in command. He speaks in the articulate, measured, gently humorous manner that is the province only of Latin teachers.

After an hour he dismissed a reporter.

"This was nice of you," he said. "And when will this story run?"

Chambers is an old-school organist, the kind that prefers to be invisible. He talks only reluctantly about himself.

"Music was a big part of my family," he said. "It was a call to serve the Lord by virtue of baptism. It still is."

The Chambers clan is Irish and German and has always loved music. Chambers' parents met through Holy Angels. Both sang in the choir.  His father, a civil engineer, had what his son calls a nice voice.

Then, in 1912, the fateful organ job opened. "Mom said she would apply."

Chambers smiled telling what happened next. The Rev. Andrew Kunz, the Oblate doing the hiring, asked Frances Chambers: "What makes a young girl like you think you can do this?"

"Typical Andy," Chambers said affectionately. He said that in 1963, when his mother was named an honorary Oblate, Kunz honored her by passing on to her his Oblate cross – the crucifix Oblates wear as their "habit."

As a boy at Holy Angels, Chambers had the gig of playing a march every day as the kids filed into school. The job was a school tradition and had previously been held by the future concert pianist Leonard Pennario. It was wartime, so Chambers played patriotic numbers, like "Over There."

"I took piano from Sister Margaret," he said. "She had just gotten her piano degree from the Toronto Conservatory. I had to do two recitals a year."

At St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, he majored in English. "And when I was at St. Joe's you had four years of Latin. I had a Brother Augustine. He was tough, but I learned."

He got a good dose of Latin on the job at Holy Angels.

"In those days there were Novenas three days a week. 'O Salutaris.' 'Tantum Ergo.' Monday, Tuesday, Friday. I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I thought I was the cat's meow."

Vatican II brought sea changes.

"I had to help people acclimate," Chambers said.

Holy Angels is a beautiful church. Its Tiffany windows were on display at the Pan-American Exposition. Chambers, accustomed to these exalted surroundings, confesses to a love for traditional church architecture.

"So many of the modern churches don't have much to offer," he sighed.

Asked about music, though, he resisted taking sides between new and old.

He remembered how much his mother loved the Magnificat, and began singing the ancient chant, his strong voice filling the rectory.  He loves Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus." "I play it to this day."

At the same time, he also likes modern hymns, like "I Am the Bread of Life" and "Hail Mary, Gentle Woman."

"It's a gift to be able to be an organist," he said. "Music has the power to bring people closer to God."

Years passed. When his mother died -- "Was she 85 or 86?" -- Chambers inherited her Oblate cross. "The pastor said, 'You keep it.' "

Now, he is an honorary Oblate himself. He is also an honorary Franciscan, thanks to his days at Timon.

He is selling his longtime home near Holy Angels, and moving to Timon Towers. Happily, he'll have a piano. He likes to play show tunes, from "The Sound of Music," which he especially loves, and "My Fair Lady," and "Phantom."

Has Chambers any advice for up-and-coming church organists?

"Remember what is your purpose," he said. "Why are you at the organ keyboard? It is different from Shea's. Be conscious of your role as a church organist. That will affect the way you sing and play.

"You're there to lead the people in the praise of God. If you're a performer, you will deteriorate."

If and when Chambers ultimately decides to retire, his successor can rest assured he will be listening. He is planning to stay active in Holy Angels. Beyond that, the future is of no concern.

"I'm an honorary Franciscan, an honorary Oblate," he said. "When I die, I'll be well taken care of."

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