In the November 2011 issue of Catholic Digest, we featured an interview with Catholic musician Bob Rowe. The following features are additional material from this interview.
Singer and musician Bob Rowe found his vocation while performing for the elderly during his Catholic school days, when seeing song lift people’s spirits convinced him that music was his calling. When performing in nightclubs and coffee houses left him dissatisfied, he knew he needed a more explicit spiritual connection in his work. Today, Rowe is the founder and director of Renaissance Enterprises in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which aims to love and serve the elderly through the arts by providing related programs to nursing homes and related care facilities. The group currently offers 200 free programs each year. Rowe recently spoke with Catholic Digest about his Catholic faith, how music has touched the lives of people he’s encountered in his ministry, and about his special correspondence with Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa and the musician
Rowe talks about his correspondence with Mother Teresa
I was starting up Renaissance Enterprises in the ‘80s when I was writing liturgical music and trying to transition from being a nightclub performer into something more substantial spiritually. I just wrote to Mother and poured my heart out. I said, “Mother, I am Bob Rowe from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’m a performer and writing Catholic music and I have a deep love for people and especially the elderly because my grandmother lived with us for 18 years. The priests and nuns used to take us around to visit them and I just want to know where God might be leading me. I’m very unhappy just being a secular performer and I need to do something more spiritual with my life.” And gosh, when she wrote back… (laughs) Just the fact that she wrote back… I wrote the letter as a catharsis for myself, never even expecting a reply. Then about six weeks later I got this funny envelope with an Indian postmark on it and I thought, Could this be?
After that I would send her snapshots of myself and our other artists performing with the elderly. And Mother would write little notes on the pictures and send them back to me. She answered every single letter I ever wrote her. In fact, the Vatican has contacted me for copies of the letters for her cause of sainthood. Also the Mother Teresa Museum has them on display in San Diego, California. And then in 2006 we actually won the Mother Teresa Award for our work with the elderly. It was quite an honor to win an award like that. It was very personal and powerful to me because she was such a mentor in my ministry.
I have 15 or 20 personal letters from her over the years — very personal, saying stuff about how our work of love in nursing homes was the work of peace and works of love like that bring one face to face with God. To this day when I get feeling once in a while like, “Lord, am I still supposed to be doing this? Do You still need me?” I re-read Mother Teresa’s letters and that kind of centers me again.
To see one of Mother Teresa’s letters to Rowe, click here.
Keeping a musician’s ego in check
Rowe shares an incident that kept him humble
You don’t get too much ego puffed-up-ness in (performance at care facilities) because they’ll bring you down to earth real quick. One Christmastime I thought I’d sung the best version of “O Holy Night” that I ever did in my life, and I was kind of feeling pretty proud of myself and one little lady said, “Well, that was nice, honey, but my shoe just fell off.” (laughs) You really learn quickly not to take yourself too seriously.
A boy, a guitar, and a song
How Rowe started performing for the elderly
Back in the early ‘70s when I was in high school, Father Robert Consani, one of the assistant pastors at St. Philip Parish in Battle Creek, Michigan, where I was in school for 12 years, was appointed through the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan to start a home seminary program where young men who might be interested in a future calling to the priesthood would meet with him on a regular basis and follow him through his ordinary ministry throughout the week. One of those activities was going to visit shut-ins in nursing homes. I immediately felt drawn to the suffering that I saw with the people and the loneliness.
Later, when I taught myself to play and sing with the guitar, a Catholic nun, Sr. Robertine Treppa, SSJ, came to give Communion to my grandmother, who lived with us for 18 years. My mom said, “Get your guitar out and play ‘I am the Bread of Life,’ which was my favorite Catholic song and still is. So [Sister] snagged me right away and started taking me around to visit the elderly in the nursing homes. Immediately I could see when I was playing music for them that [it made an impact]. I would see the person I was singing to just come alive, and see the spirit of God brighten up in them. I think that was probably a real anointing for me from the Holy Spirit at that point to find what my true calling was in life. As much as I love the idea of the priesthood and consecrated Religious life, music was such a burning thing for me, a passion and a desire and a love. To be able to find a way to serve God with it early on in my life was a real blessing.
From nightclubs to nursing homes
Bob Rowe on his personal journey
God has a way of giving us great dissatisfaction with things that really aren’t where we’re supposed to be. As much as I enjoyed being a performer and still do, there was a big element missing for me. I really needed a spiritual component. And I just couldn’t find that performing in nightclubs. So I started calling up the local nursing home in whatever town I was in and go in and do an afternoon program before my evening show. And right away I found, I need to be doing this music ministry thing full-time.
Also at that point in my life I started writing liturgical music. Then later on around 1986 or 1987 I came back home to Kalamazoo, Michigan and went to meet with one of the large foundations here. I wanted to explore whether this was anything that could be developed into a full-time outreach. I met with the president of this foundation, who was a very kind man, and he said, “I think you’ve got a really different idea here, and if you’re willing to enlist your fellow performers from these years on the road and put together a board of directors, I think we can give you some start-up money.” And that’s how it all began. The rest is history, as they say. They’ve been supporting us for 23 years now, many of the other foundations.
Watch videos of Bob Rowe performing