He’s No Ordinary Irish Tenor

Mark Forrest is singing for life.

He studied music at The Catholic University of America and wanted to be a Broadway star. But family tragedy and his own faith led him to put his talent to the service of others, to help them learn to bear their crosses.

He has performed for Pope John Paul II as well as for secular leaders and celebrities. But his passion lies with his Faith and Family Foundation, which assists families with “special-needs” children. Forrest spoke with Register correspondent Monta Hernon.

It was your initial hope to tour with Broadway musicals. What changed?

I started having children. Our first son was healthy, but then our second son [John Patrick] changed my whole perspective.

He was born with a metabolic disease — a disease that has left him blind and deaf and in a wheelchair. There is very little known about it in the sense that there are very few children with this disability. It is a progressive disease, unfortunately, but it seems to have stalled at the moment.

He definitely changed my life. The whole aspect of what was important really changed for me. All of the dreams and aspirations I had for going to Broadway and traveling all over the world just totally changed. None of it was important to me.

Then your third child, Francesco, was born.

When we had our third child, Francesco, at the 20-week sonogram, our child was diagnosed with a hypoplastic heart. This means that the heart is a couple of chambers short. There would need to be an operation done to fix that once he was born.

On Aug 12, 1997, Francesco was born and was immediately put on a life support machine where he was getting ready for the operation. But, six hours after delivery, the doctors told us there was nothing they could do. The heart defect was [too] severe. Both my wife [Muriel] and I were faced with the daunting task of having to take our son off life support.

It was particularly hard because he looked so healthy.

Everything else was absolutely perfect. It was just his heart. We had Francesco baptized and confirmed, and brought him home. Six days later, our son died. It was a difficult journey, but it was another confirmation for me and my wife about the sanctity of life. At the end of the day, it is important to realize the gift of life itself. Sometimes we leave [things] until it is too late. Too often we leave it until it’s too late to tell the people that we love, that we love them.

A lot of families in your situation would have been too scared or overwhelmed to have more children. What would you say to them?

No matter what cross you have in life, God is going to give you the grace to see it through, no matter what it is. More often we are praying to change the cross. We forget to actually pray for the gifts that come with that cross. Right after we lost Francesco, we had two other healthy children, Connor Anthony and Anthony Joseph. Joseph Michael, our youngest child, was diagnosed with the same metabolic disorder as John Patrick. He too is going blind and deaf. He is 3. However, outside of all of it, I wouldn’t change anything. It has made me who I am today.

How did your experiences as a parent of a special need child lead you to start the Faith and Family Foundation in 1999?

Two things will put a parent over the edge. The financial drain is unbelievable. Secondly, it is the constant care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eighty-five percent of marriages in my world of special needs do not survive. Indeed [the foundation provides] financial scholarships and different medical programs, but as far as I am concerned, finances are Band-Aids. The real aspect that people have got to tap into is the spiritual dimension of the journey of their life — the implication that God has called them to be a family. These children aren’t accidents. I am a firm believer that the children of the special needs world today are God’s little angels that are strategically placed around the world to remind the rest of us how lucky we are.

Aside from financial programs, then, how does the foundation help?

My commitment is to help parents get through the difficult decision at the 20-week sonogram. A parent goes into a frenzy. “Where do I go? Where do I turn?” There is a wonderful team that the foundation has pulled together — a resource that many parents who have gone through this should be able to tap into. The most important support for [parents] is to know they are not the only ones out there. We have a team of doctors across the country that can deal with someone getting information. The last thing we want is to have the abortion issue come into play. For a doctor who does not have a Christian value system, that is the first thing to come on the table. It becomes a $400 solution for the family. That option is unthinkable. There are other options out there and they all need to be addressed.

[In addition,] we need to be able as a Christian community, as a Catholic community to be able to put in place a system that helps a person through their journey all the way. When the yellow bus stops coming to your door there has to be a system in place to look after the family with special needs. I am a big advocate for respite care. I am a big advocate for babysitting. People often ask, “What is the best thing I can do?” For me the greatest gift someone can give a family with special needs is the gift of babysitting. Every Wednesday night, I have a lady who comes to my house and gives me and my wife a three-hour break. This has been the greatest gift.

How do you use your voice and talent to further your cause and foundation?

We guarantee our fund-raising concerts will run from $16,000 to $28,000 of funds. We guarantee our fee to put on the concert. If it doesn’t make it, we don’t take it. The concert is a full two hours of entertainment, but also I want to bridge the gap from entertainment to inspiration. I believe that God has given me the gift of the voice not only to entertain people, but to inspire people to get involved and make a difference.

Along those lines, you have created a special Eucharistic program.

John Paul II had called the Year of the Eucharist. Many of the dioceses in this country used this as a launching pad for re-igniting our awareness of Jesus Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist. I designed a program of Eucharistic adoration and reflection. I give a talk about my family. I ask the audience to bring any of their crosses they think are especially heavy and to put them at the foot of the cross. Then we turn off the lights in the church. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed. In the dark everyone has a one-on-one experience. Within the hour-and-a-half program, we hope to create an atmosphere whereby people will open up their hearts for five to 10 minutes of honesty to be able to let God in. It is a program that I will always be a part of and committed to. The only person that took me through the difficulties I was talking about was Jesus Christ.

Monta Monaco Hernon writes

 from La Grange Park, Illinois.

In the Repertoire of Mark Forrest


‘Dublin in the Rare Ould Times’

Raised on songs and stories,

heroes of renown,
the passing tales and glories

that once was Dublin town.
The hallowed halls and houses,

the haunting children’s rhymes,
that once was part of Dublin

in the rare ould times.

Ring a ring a rosey, as the light declines,
I remember Dublin city in the rare ould times.

My name it is Sean Dempsey,

as Dublin as can be,
born hard and late in Pimlico,

in a house that ceased to be.
By trade I was a cooper,

lost out to redundancy.
Like my house that fell to progress, my trade’s a memory.

And I courted Peggy Dignam,

as pretty as you please,
a rogue and child of Mary,

from the rebel Liberties.
I lost her to a student chap,

with skin as black as coal.
When he took her off to Birmingham,

well she took away my soul.

Ring a ring a rosey, as the light declines,
I remember Dublin City in the rare ould times.

The years have made me bitter,

the gargoyle dims me brain,
’cause Dublin keeps on changing,

and nothing seems the same.
The Pillar and the Met have gone,

the Royal long since pulled down,
as the grey unyielding concrete,

makes a city of my town.

Ring a ring a rosey, as the light declines,
I remember Dublin City in the rare ould times.

Fare thee well sweet Anna Liffey,

I can no longer stay
and watch the new glass cages,

that spring up along decay.
My mind’s too full of memories,

too old to hear new chimes.
I’m part of what was Dublin,

in the rare ould times.

Ring a ring a rosey, as the light declines,
I remember Dublin City in the rare ould times.

Ring a ring a rosey, as the light declines,
I remember Dublin City in the rare ould times.


‘My Forever Friend’

By Charles Landsborough

Everybody needs a little

help sometime,
no one stands alone.
Makes no difference

if you’re just a child like me
or a king upon a throne.
For there are no exceptions;
we all stand in the line.
Everybody needs a friend;
let me tell you of mine.

He’s my forever friend,
my leave-me-never friend;
from darkest night to rainbow’s end,
he’s my forever friend

Even when I turn away he cares for me;
his love no one can shake.
Even as I walk away he’s by my side
with every breath I take.
And sometimes I forget him;
my halo fails to shine.
Sometimes I’m not his friend,
but he is always mine

Repeat chorus

If you still don’t know the one I’m talking of,
I think it’s time you knew.
Long ago and far away upon a cross,
my friend died for you.
So if you’d like to meet him
and don’t know what to do.
Ask my friend into you heart
and he’ll be your friend too.

Repeat chorus