Anthony DeStefano always wanted to write a children’s book. He set to work on it 30 years ago in his high-school creative writing class under the tutelage of Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt. The 16-year-old budding writer won a few awards, and then put the book in a drawer.
He went on to become a successful author, newspaper columnist and businessman before meeting a young priest named Father Frank Pavone. The meeting not only changed his career path, but his destiny. A lapsed Catholic, DeStefano met with Father Pavone and returned to practicing the faith. The pair went on to build Priests for Life into a pro-life powerhouse with worldwide influence.
DeStefano’s latest book is This Little Prayer of Mine. Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky spoke to him from the Priests for Life headquarters on Staten Island, N.Y.
I can tell from your accent that you’re from New York. Tell me about your upbringing.
I was born in Brooklyn. My family was Catholic, but we weren’t a very religious family. My father had fallen away from the practice of Catholicism, but he instilled in us a very high respect for priests and the Church hierarchy.
I didn’t practice the faith very much until my mid-20s when I met Father Pavone. My sister Elisa told me, “You have to hear this young priest. He’s really brilliant.” So she dragged me along to a Latin Mass that he was saying one night on Staten Island. I went along, and I was very impressed.
I had a lot of questions about the faith, so I made an appointment, and we went through them one by one. Before you know it, I was involved in the world of Father Frank. I was the first person to get him on television - Staten Island Cable Community Television - and the relationship has gotten deeper ever since. That was more than 20 years ago.
You’ve had a diverse career - managing a chain of electronics stores, an op-ed columnist and executive director of Priests for Life. Have you always been interested in business and writing?
Yes. Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in not necessarily the entrepreneurial side, but the challenge of creating a big organization or company has always intrigued me. From the very moment I met Father Pavone, I started thinking about how I could use whatever business talents I had to help the Church. So that’s where it all came together.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in my teens, but I wanted to be a secular writer. I was influenced by A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to be a starving writer in Paris or Rome or someplace like that. It wasn’t until I read C.S. Lewis that I decided to be a writer of spiritual books.
Your first book was Travel Guide to Heaven. What inspired that book?
Father Pavone, primarily. He gave a homily about heaven when I first met him in the early ’90s. He talked about how heaven is not just going to be spiritual, but it’s going to be physical as well. I remember thinking that this could be a great book. Every time I attended a funeral after that, I realized that there was a tremendous need for this book. All too often at funerals or wakes people giving the sermons don’t focus on the fact that we are going to see these departed loved ones again in the flesh. We’re going to be able to hug them, kiss them, hear their voices again and feel the warmth of their skin. I thought that it could be very consoling to capture those details, put them in a book and stay within the bounds of orthodox theology.
How did your next book, Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To - develop?
It came from my desire to write books that encourage people and lift them up. There’s a lot of negativity in the world. All you have to do is turn on the television set or open the newspaper and you see a lot of things that bring you down. I want to write things that lift people up and do it in a way that isn’t some form of pop spirituality. Orthodox theology, explained in simple terms, is an extraordinarily uplifting thing. People always complain that God doesn’t answer their prayers, so why not write a book on prayers that God always says Yes to?
Your latest book is for kids. Why a children’s book?
Since my first two books came out, people have been encouraging me to write a children’s book. I’m in the pro-life movement, so it was a natural segue to write for kids. Originally, the impetus was just to write a children’s version of the adult books I’d already written. As I thought about that, I realized that there’s really no greater gift you can give a child than to teach them how to pray.
This book - or any book on prayer for kids - is so important because we want to protect our children from suffering, but we know that in this world we’re not going to be able to do that all the time. Children are going to face grief and pain and loss. But when we teach them how to pray, it ensures that no matter what type of suffering they encounter in life, they’re always going to be able to get through that suffering with their sanity, their peace of mind and their faith intact. It will give the child, and the adult that child becomes, hope that there is meaning not only to suffering but to their life. That’s a great gift, and I’d think parents and grandchildren want to give their children and grandchildren that gift. It’s a lot better than giving them a video game or toy or doll. That’s the main reason I wrote this book.
The cover is clever with the two angels looking at the kids.
That was my father’s idea. I wanted to make the cover a little more exciting than just two kids praying, and he suggested using Raphael’s angels. But instead of having the angels looking up, have them look down at the children. Some of the illustrations in children’s books these days are, frankly, rather weird. Because prayer is such a universal subject, I wanted to make sure that the book was very traditional, wholesome, inviting and playful as well. And I wanted someone whose style was reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s. I think he did a marvelous job.
What has the reaction been like?
I’ve had a very warm reception from mommy bloggers. A lot of them have reviewed my book, and they’ve started a prairie fire. I think that’s why the book is doing so well. They tell me they read the book to their children every night. I’ve been really encouraged by that feedback.
Regis and Kelly talked about the book, and I was interviewed by Fox News. The good thing about this is that even though I’m a faithful Catholic, my books are not just for Catholics. My other books are for Christians. But this book isn’t even just for Christians. It’s for anyone who believes in God. My thinking from the beginning was that if I was going to write a book about prayer, let me write one that’s going to be used by as many people as possible. I don’t want any of my books just to be in the back of a seminary library - or even just in the religious section of Barnes & Noble. I want them to be read by the general public.
You have a kids’ Christmas book up next.
Yes. It’s called Little Star, and it was illustrated by the same artist: Mark Elliott. There’s a funny story behind the book. I wrote it when I was 16 and still in high school. Frank McCourt, a very famous writer who just died, was my creative writing teacher for three years in high school. He assigned us to write a children’s book, and this is what I wrote. At the time, it won various awards. It won the Easter Seals award, and the famous actress Helen Hayes did a public reading of the book and presented it to the Easter Seals child of New York in 1980. Then it sat in a drawer for all these years. It hasn’t been published, so when I got the children’s book deal for This Little Prayer of Mine, I asked Random House if they’d be interested in Little Star. They were, and it’s coming out later this year.
Is writing your full-time ministry now?
No, not at all. I’m still the vice chairman of the board with Priests for Life. I still oversee their growth and finances and fundraising. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m just writing for a living. My main priority in my life is helping Father Frank. No matter how important these books may be, they’re a distant second to my pro-life work. My publishers would love it if I quit my day job and promoted all these books like other authors, but I can’t do that because there’s a priest named Father Frank Pavone who is doing the most important work in the world.
Patrick Novecosky writes from Naples, Florida.