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Tenor John McDermott battles for veterans

Photo: John McDermott

By Michael Quinlin

Singer, entertainer, advocate, friend.

These words well describe John McDermott, the popular Celtic tenor known for his exquisite renderings of Irish and Scottish ballads and patriotic songs, and for his zealous advocacy for causes near and dear to his heart.

McDermott performs with his trio at Mechanics Hall in Worcester on December 18, part of “A Family Christmas” tour that takes him to 23 cities in the USA and Canada.

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As always, McDermott is singing for a cause, in this instance, a fundraiser for St. John’s Food Pantry for the Poor, an important initiative that looks out for Worcester’s needy.

McDermott’s connection to Worcester goes back 15 years.

In 2000, he did a benefit concert at Mechanics Hall for the Korean War Memorial project.

“The organizer of the memorial was Frank Carroll, a real community guy,” McDermott recalls, adding that Carroll is a “patriot to the bone, so when there's an effort to help veterans or community, you won't find anyone to roll up their sleeves like Frank.”

Carroll is also the fundraising force behind the St. John’s Food Pantry.

In 2011, Carroll organized an event at Hanover Theatre to raise funds expand the pantry at which McDermott performed.

Jump to 2015, and McDermott gives Carroll a call.

“I got the idea that I wanted to do a Christmas concert at Mechanics Hall,” McDermott says.

Carroll told him the Food Pantry still needed help, so McDermott again agreed to perform on its behalf.

The ninth of twelve children born in Glasgow, Scotland, to Irish immigrants, Peter and Hope McDermott, the family immigrated to Ontario, Canada in the 1960s, when John was a teenager.

“My father was a great singer as a young man, but he had twelve kids so he didn’t do it for a living,” McDermott recalls.

John himself performed at the St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto.

But it wasn’t until he was 39 that he became a professional singer.

He made a recording of “Danny Boy” as a gift to his parents on their 50th anniversary.

Someone from EMI Music Canada heard it and offered McDermott a recording contract.

Since then, McDermott’s career has thrived.

He performed with the renowned Irish Tenors, and recorded his own PBS special.

He has performed at the JFK Library’s “Profiles in Courage” awards and sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park.

He has recorded close to thirty albums, several of which went Platinum.

Throughout this incredible run of success, McDermott has grounded his career in something other than himself, thanks to advice from his father.

“After my first concert at the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto, my father came up to me and said two things, ‘I want you to promise me you’ll give back to Canada. And, give back to the veterans, because regardless of where you are, the vets are giving us what we have.”

Since then, McDermott has been a tireless advocate for veteran’s causes and hospice care for the sick and elderly.

In Boston, McDermott teamed up with Tommy Lyons, the respected and admired advocate for veterans who ran the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans.

“I have known John for almost twenty years and in that time he has never said no to any ask that I sent his way,” says Lyons.

“From Homeless Veterans, Marine Corps or the Medal of Honor Society, John has done anything and everything asked of him from raising funds and awareness to make events successful.”

The veterans cause is personal.

John’s father served in the Royal Air Force. John's mother had a brother who died in the notorious Changi Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore.

Two of John's cousins were killed in Vietnam and another took his own life after serving there.

In 2010, John was awarded a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation for his work on behalf of veterans.

He is also an honorary member of the War Amps of Canada.

In the U.S., the Congressional Medal of Honor Society bestowed the Bob Hope Award on John for his work on behalf of veterans.

Charitable largesse aside, McDermott remains enraptured by the power of music.

He mentions Christy Moore, Eric Bogle, Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins as musicians he listens to frequently, and cites Ireland’s bard, Thomas Moore, as an inspiration.

“The song has to be written for a reason, that’s what’s of interest to me,” he says.

“My dad never sang a song without saying who wrote it and why they wrote it. I love the ballads and the history.”

More at mechanicshall.com and johnmcdermott.com.

Meanwhile, St. Johns Food for the Poor Program provides hot, nutritious breakfast meals to those in need, serving five days a week, 52 weeks a year. It welcomes serves 250 people a day at the soup kitchen. The food pantry distributes 10,400 to-go food packages annually.

Worcester native and U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, hailed as a national advocate for ending hunger in America, says St. John’s “is the result of a lot of compassion and a lot of love.”

McGovern told the Worcester Telegram the beneficiaries of the soup kitchen “run the gamut from people who are homeless to people who are down on their luck and need a little help while they look for work.”

These include families, children and senior citizens.

Founded in 1834, St. John’s has long been the center for Worcester’s large Irish-American community.

In 2004, parishioners opened a food pantry in the basement of the church to help the needy.

The demand increased, and parishioners again stepped up, raising funds to buy a building next to the church to expand the operation.

In 2013, it opened the St. Francis Xavier Center with a pantry, soup kitchen and food distribution center.

You can make a donation to St. John’s Food for the Poor online (Tax ID information: 501(c)(3) #042 106 729) or at St. John’s Church Food for the Poor Program, Father John Madden, 44 Temple Street Worcester, MA 01604. More at stjohnsfoodforthepoor.org