More than a decade ago, Brian Warchola, then a seminarian, met Tony Meléndez, an armless musician whose ability to share his story and play the guitar with his feet has inspired Catholics across the world, ever since he received a kiss from Pope John Paul II after a performance.
They got their picture taken together during the encounter at a pro-life event.
Even though Warchola is not sure where the photo is, as a result of moving several times, he often thinks of the image and the meeting. And, recently, Warchola decided to contact Meléndez and see if he would be interested in doing a local performance.
So, on Jan. 21, Meléndez will give two concerts at Holy Name Catholic Church in Ebensburg where Warchola serves as pastor.
The first will be for local Catholic school students in the morning. Then, at 7 p.m., Meléndez will play a free show for the community, although donations will be accepted.
“To me, it’s just a matter of getting somebody who has been known throughout the country, throughout the world, somebody who is very strong in their Catholic faith,” Warchola said.
“To me, it’s something to uplift the church, to build up the body of Christ on Earth.
“I’m trying to find ways to do that – to bring people some hope, some peace, some joy. It means a lot. It means the world to have somebody like him come. I think it will just be a way for everybody to really be touched by their heart with him and having him present. Certainly, I think it will do a lot of good.”
These will be Meléndez’s first shows in Ebensburg.
“I always feel honored to go to a new place,” Meléndez said. “Pennsylvania is very beautiful, so anytime I get to go out there I really enjoy it.”
‘Fought through adversity’
About 700 students, including seventh- and eighth-graders from Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Johnstown, are expected to attend the afternoon concert.
“I think that it would be good for our students and students of that age to see someone that has fought through adversity and has done something special with their life to impact others in a positive way,” said Thomas Smith, Divine Mercy’s chief academic officer. “This is a gentleman who has no arms and plays the guitar with his feet and toes. I’ll be willing to bet not too many of our students have seen anything like this.
“You think about the things you deal with every day – or that we deal with every day – (they) are on a minimal level compared to what this gentleman has dealt with his entire life and what he’s done with himself. And how – we’re from a Catholic school – he was inspired by our faith and has remained faithful instead of turning the other direction and saying, ‘Why me? Why has this happened to me?’ He has turned it into a positive and is using it to inspire others. What a gift that is.”
The church, which is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, could seat about 1,000 concert-goers for the nighttime show.
“Tony Meléndez is an inspirational musician, and we are thrilled that he is coming to our diocese to share his story and remarkable talent,” said Tony DeGol, Altoona-Johnstown’s secretary for communications. “We are grateful to Father Warchola for having the vision to bring Meléndez to Holy Name Parish and invite faithful from throughout the diocese to be part of this opportunity.
“All of us face challenges in life, and all of us have gifts. Meléndez is a great example of someone who is not letting any obstacle prevent him for using his gifts and sharing them with others.
“We hope everyone who experiences Meléndez’s music at Holy Name – especially our young people – walks away feeling inspired and committed to using their talents to the fullest.”
Meléndez, a native of Nicaragua, was born with no arms, a birth defect caused by his mother taking thalidomide, a prescription drug used to calm morning sickness during pregnancy.
He took up the guitar in the mid-1980s when living in Los Angeles.
On Sept. 15, 1987, Meléndez sang and played the song “Never Be the Same” at a youth event where he was presented as a “gift” to John Paul II.
The holy father responded emotionally to the song and went to the stage to kiss Meléndez.
“It was a surprise,” Meléndez said. “It was life-changing. It was not supposed to happen. I was part of a youth gathering with the pope. Four cities got to ask him questions. I was the ‘gift’ from Los Angeles. I really thought it would just be finish the song. You know, here I am playing the guitar with my toes. I finished the song. I really thought it would just be polite clap, clap, clap, clap, and OK, on with the next ‘gift.’ Next thing I know, he’s jumping into the audience, working his way over to me. Even before he jumped off his stage, he said, ‘I have to kiss him.’
“I felt honored. I felt blessed. Since I was a ‘gift’ from the youth, it was as if they were being embraced, which was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment.”
The blessing from the pope helped launch his musical career that has included performing on “The Today Show,” “700 Club,” “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning,” along with at the Vatican, and singing the national anthem before the fifth game of the 1989 World Series.
He has held concerts in more than 40 countries.
“(My faith) has taken me around the world,” said Meléndez, 58, who now lives in Branson, Missouri. “I’ve really kind of said it challenges me, too, to be a better person. It has that spiritual entity of Christ that gives me strength. I wish I could pass it on to everyone, but I know there’s people that don’t want that kind of a message. But my heart wishes to pass on that kind of strength, that kind of power, which all comes from the heavens.”