After 80 years, Connellsville man is still singing a holiday tune
Tony Cavalier loves Christmas.
And he has reason. Not only does he celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. He also celebrates his own birthday.
Today, Cavalier, of Connellsville, turns 87.
And he always celebrates the same way — singing with St. Rita RC Church choir for Christmas services. Just as he will do once again today.
Cavalier has sung “Oh Holy Night” at a Christmas Mass at St. Rita RC Church for more than 50 years.
It's a song he loves.
“Singing is my life. I sing all the time,” said Cavalier, who is proud to share the same birth date as Jesus.
For 80 of his 87 years, Cavalier has been singing with St. Rita's choir. He started in second grade as a boy soprano.
“I started when I was 7 years old. Sister Cecilia would take me around to each room in St. Rita's School, where I was a student. There were two grades in each room,” said Cavalier.
Cavalier joined St. Rita's Choir in 1952, when Amedeo Molinaro was the director.
In 1953, Cavalier's lifelong friend Henry F. Molinaro assumed the choir director position.
“Henry Molinaro and I have been the best of friends. He is quite a guy. We have done a lot together, been in quite a few choruses together,” said Cavalier, including singing in Merle Stutzman's Connellsville Chorale, also in choruses in Scottdale and Uniontown.
“That was a wonderful time. Henry has said that I was the best boy soprano he ever heard,” said Cavalier.
Cavalier is one of nine children born to Michael and Philomena Cavalier. His siblings are Henry, Michael, John, Francis, Eugene, Loretta Shroyer, Angela Ditto and Rita Pratt.
Because his birthday is on Christmas Day, his grandmother always told him he came down the chimney and was covered with soot on arrival. He believed that until he was 11.
His youngest sister, Rita Pratt, fondly remembers her brother singing around the house as a child. Today she sits in front of him in St. Rita's Choir, enjoying the sound of his voice.
“He has been devoted to St. Rita's Choir all his life. He is very faithful. He enjoys singing for the church. It is very special to him. He gets so much joy out of it,” said Pratt.
Cavalier's nephew, Ron Shroyer, also sings in St. Rita's Choir.
Cavalier was an avid baseball player, a solid pitcher, having spent many hours at the West Side Hill baseball field. In the early 1940s he wanted to become a professional baseball player.
“I tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field at the age of 16. They kept me until the final day of tryouts,” said Cavalier.
At age 19 in 1945, Cavalier joined the US Navy where he auditioned for and was awarded a soloist appointment in the Blue Jackets Navy Choir. He traveled all over the Chicago area with the group before being sent overseas. He was discharged in 1949.
In 1951, he married the former Ruth Nicholson. They had five children: Denise Myers, Dennis Cavalier, Judi Franks, Eugene Cavalier and Pamala Swink. His wife died in 1998 at the age of 60.
Cavalier is a meat cutter by trade. He took a meat cutting and merchandising two-year course in Pittsburgh. He has taken pride in the trade, cutting strip steaks and ribs with precision. Preparations have sometimes been for hundreds and included chicken breast with stuffing and the potatoes too. At one time he owned four pizza shops in this area.
There have been several organists that Cavalier has sung with in the past, including Henry Rulli and Gene Carbonara. Rosella Talucci was the organist at St. Rita's for 50 years.
“Rosella played and I sang at 200 weddings and many funerals. We went to many Protestant churches and to a gathering of ministers at Jumonville where I sang 'The Lord's Prayer,'” recalled Cavalier.
“I take singing seriously. Rosella and I went everywhere for weddings. It was wonderful to see the happy brides and grooms and I loved seeing all the different churches over those many years. Thank God Connellsville has so many beautiful churches,” said Cavalier.
Cavalier is a cantor, which he loves doing. “It is nice to face the people because you can have eye contact,” he said.
Like the traditional “Oh Holy Night,” Cavalier sings on Christmas, every Palm Sunday, he sings “The Palms.”
Cavalier not only enjoys singing with the choir but he enjoys the friendships he has made — and lost. He remembered Joanne Natale, a friend who recently passed away.
“For many years a group of us would go out to eat after choir practice. Henry (Molinaro) would jokingly sing ‘Just Call Me Tony, Tony the Ice-A-Man' and all these years Joanne would see me and say ‘It's Tony the Ice-A Man.' I'm really going to miss her,” said Cavalier.
Cavalier exercises and practices deep breathing each morning when he gets up. He feels young.
“I sing with a lot of feeling. It is because of the Blessed Mother and Jesus. When I sing ‘Bless This House' at Thanksgiving Joanne would always get tears in her eyes. I still hit the high A-flat note and hold it. I think I'm doing what the Lord wants me to do. I say a prayer to St. Cecilia before singing. She is the Patron of Music,” said Cavalier. Sister Cecilia encouraged Cavalier's singing as a child.
A humble and soft-spoken man, Cavalier smiles as he talks about his good health. He takes no medications and runs up the steep steps to the choir loft at St. Rita's.
Cavalier has sung the national anthem at the Woodruff race every July for 29 years. He only missed the first one when his wife had planned a vacation. He briskly walks to the top of the bleachers in Falcon Stadium to sing it prior to the start of the race.
Christopher Mickey is now the organist at St. Rita's. He is honored to work with Cavalier.
“He is one of the most dedicated and reliable pillars of our choir. He never misses a Mass,” said Mickey.
Mickey said he first started to work with Cavalier 12 years ago when he was asked to play the organ for a funeral at the former St. Vincent de Paul church in Leisenring. Cavalier had been asked to sing.
“I was only 14 at the time and there I was, playing ‘Ave Maria' for the man regarded as a legend, having sung at St. Rita's for well over 50 years. Tony even sang for my parents' wedding Mass at St. Rita's nearly 30 years ago. When you think of St. Rita's Choir, you think of Tony. I wish him many more years of health and happiness, and am thankful that at the age of 87, he is still as active as ever,” said Mickey.
Cavalier is faithful and passionate in his singing. He feels the love of the Lord as he sings.
“It is truly heartwarming to have people like Tony who have shown such dedication to the parish. If the pews of the Connellsville Catholic churches were filled with such people we would be on fire,” said the Rev. Bob Lubic, pastor of the Catholic Churches of Connellsville (St. Rita, Immaculate Conception and St. John the Evangelist).
Does Cavalier feel old on this 87th birthday? Not at all.
“I've enjoyed every minute. We have Rev. Lubic here now. He's a young priest, very nice. Chris Mickey is a wonderful organist. He learned from Rosella and carries on beautifully. I love Connellsville and St. Rita's Church. The acoustics there are not like any other church, the ceilings are wonderful for sound.”
And one more tradition will continue today. Rosella Talucci started it years ago. After Christmas Mass is complete, Mickey will play the first few notes of the happy birthday song and then the whole congregation will join in singing the song to Cavalier — continuing a longtime tradition for a dedicated, beloved member of their church community.
Happy birthday Tony Cavalier!
Nancy Henry is a contributing writer.