Musical way of giving thanks North Bergen native honors nuns who saved his life

Anton Del Forno is an accomplished classical guitarist who has played in many of the best concert halls in the world, including Carnegie Hall. The North Bergen native has been playing professionally since he was a student at North Bergen High School and has recorded five albums, the latest to be released very shortly. Del Forno, now 49 years old, still enjoys his music. His latest album will feature his own compositions, something he is very proud of. Before the newest release, his CD “Del Forno Plays Villa Lobos,” honoring the famous Brazilian composer, was a popular selection in the classical world. “I guess that I can say that I’ve had a nice career,” Del Forno admits. However, on a fateful day three summers ago, it all almost came to an end. It’s a day that Del Forno will never forget – and chooses to remember in a very special way each year at the Feast of the Epiphany, right after the Christmas holidays. In August, 1996, Del Forno was enjoying a summer afternoon with his family on Lake Hopatcong. He was clowning around on a Jet Ski and showing off a little, increasing the speed. “It was probably a little bit of the speed and a little bit of the rough waters,” Del Forno recalls. However, he doesn’t remember much more of what happened. Del Forno crashed the Jet Ski hard into the waters of Lake Hopatcong, knocking him unconscious. None of the family members who were with Del Forno at the time knew how to swim. All they did was cry for help. He was in 50-foot deep water and 50 yards from the shore. Definitely a crisis situation. Nuns in the sun On the shore, approximately 500 yards from where Del Forno crashed, a retreat of approximately 50 Felician nuns was taking place. Sister Marilyn Minter, from the order of Felician Sister in Lodi, was the organizer of the group’s “Being Day,” in which the Sisters enjoy a barbecue, a festive day out. She was the first to hear the family’s plea for help. “Just luckily, I was a lifeguard,” Sister Marilyn said. “On that day, we weren’t dressed like nuns, so no one knew. I saw the men on the paddleboat, asking for help, so I ripped off my overalls and swam out to help them. “When I got to him, he was knocked out,” Sister Marilyn continued. “I held his head up and got him to land.” Sister Marilyn and another nun, Sister Judith, were able to bring Del Forno to safety. He had suffered a concussion, but with his head bobbing in the water while being unconscious, he could have drowned. Del Forno is certain that it was a sign of divine intervention. “When I came to, I was sitting at the feet of a statue of St. Anthony,” Del Forno said. “And then, they told me that they were nuns. It was really amazing.” “I thought he looked like Zorro,” Sister Marilyn said. “He had a long pony tail. He told us that he was a guitar player and we said we were a bunch of nuns. He didn’t know how he was going to repay us.” Del Forno was forever grateful for the nuns who saved him. “Needless to say, if they’re not there to help me that day, then I’m not here today,” Del Forno said. “If it wasn’t for them saving me, I wouldn’t have the chance to play, to do anything. It was a lucky stroke for me that they were there. I knew I had to do something for them in return.” At Christmas time in 1997, Del Forno called Sister Marilyn and approached her with the idea of giving a benefit concert, as a way of saying thanks.”Needless to say, the Felician Sisters gladly accepted. “We said that we had an annual concert right after Christmas to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany [usually around Jan. 6],” Sister Marilyn said. “We thought it was a pretty big concert, but when Anton wanted to be a part, of course we welcomed him to be a part.” Del Forno had recorded an album of Christmas songs entitled “Christmas Gifts” in 1983. So Christmas songs were already part of his repertoire. He also plays classical pieces by Bach, Mozart, and his own compositions that were perfect for the concert. Del Forno has been giving the concert ever since. He just completed the third concert at the Sisters’ chapel in Lodi. And this year, it was bigger than ever, with more than 250 people in attendance. The concert raised nearly $600 for the Sisters’ respective charities. “The whole chapel was filled,” Sister Marilyn said. “There was a fabulous choir and there were musicians. And Anton just completed the wonderful day. It’s just incredible how this concert continues to grow, the music connections. It’s led to a violinist coming from New York, and other musicians coming. It’s incredible how God works, how our family has grown because of that one day at Lake Hopatcong.” Del Forno is so pleased with the way the concert turned out that he’s actually thinking of doing a recording at the chapel. “The acoustics are perfect there,” Del Forno. “It really sounds great.” Del Forno also remains close to his hometown, although he now lives in Short Hills. For example, he gave a concert at the North Bergen public library last year and randomly plays at other sites in town. “Libraries, churches, schools,” Del Forno said. “I love to do that. I’m part of an organization that plays for people who can’t get to the concert halls in major cities.” And it’s a far cry from when he was a student at North Bergen High in the 1960s and he played in a band called “The Orphans” with his brother, Ralph. “I think anyone 40 and up in North Bergen would remember `The Orphans,’ ” Del Forno said. “My brother went into the Army at that time and I went into classical from rock.” Del Forno keeps himself busy. After he completes his latest release, he will go on tour, leaving for Florida next week. A tour of China is in the works for later this year. But he will never forget what the Felician Sisters did for him that day nearly four years ago. “It’s the best way that I can say ‘thanks’ for what they did,” Del Forno said. “I will forever be thankful.”