Two Priests Climbing the Ladder Find a Common Bond in Prince

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a late 12th-century icon at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. The icon depicts the steps for monks in the spiritual life as they ascend the ladder of salvation. Demons try to pull the monks off as they ascend.

 

The church introduced them, but a shared love of Prince’s music cemented a 30-year friendship between Eastern Orthodox priests Father Thomas Zain and Father Fred Shaheen.

“We knew each other through church, but our friendship developed over Prince,” says Father Fred, a priest at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It’s hard to tell where one aspect of the friendship starts and the other begins.”

Present-day priests and friends. From left: Father Thomas Zain; well-known jazz trumpet player Atlanta Bliss, who worked with Prince from 1985-1991; Father Fred Shaheen; and a third priest friend, Father Joseph Bittle.

Father Tom, for his part, is the Vicar General of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Dean at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn, New York. All you need to know about Father Tom is this: While a teenager attending a church youth conference in Ohio in the early 1980s, Father Tom discovered that Prince was in town on the 1999 tour. He did the only logical thing and bought tickets with a few church friends.

“It was one of the last shows on the tour,” Father Tom says as if by way of explanation, adding that back then, as a kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he was as much a fan of The Time as of the headliner. And, he recalls, The Time put on a great show. Then, Prince came on stage, and a surge of electricity shot through the crowd. The show was heady stuff, and Father Tom became a believer.

“It was like getting on a train and never looking back,” Father Tom says.

As a young teenager in Worcester, Massachusetts, Father Fred says Prince first caught his attention during the Controversy era.

Father Fred at age 17, representing as a Prince fan (note the button).

“The album cover, the magazine ad in Billboard and what critics were saying about him all made me take notice,” Father Fred recalls, adding that 1999 was the album that blew his teenage mind. “I think for a year and a half it was all I listened to, and it challenged me,” he says of his 16-year-old self. “I’d never heard music like that before. It created an `I want more’ feeling.”

By 1984, Father Fred and Father Tom considered themselves super fans. The statistics bear out this claim: To date, collectively, they have seen 55 Prince shows (official tally: 40 for Tom; 15 for Fred).

“He’s not a bigger Prince fan, he just lives in a bigger city,” Father Fred asserts.

“Living in New York for the past 21 years was the next best thing to living in Minneapolis,” Father Tom concedes.

The friendship took off in 1988 when Fred and Tom ran into each other at a regional church youth meeting in Toledo, Ohio. Fred was sporting a custom Purple Rain jean jacket. The jacket was like a secret handshake: Tom spotted it and knew they had to be friends.

Father Fred, during Spring Break 1987, at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York

Later that year, the teens attended the Chicago Lovesexy show together.

“And I saw it again another time,” Father Tom adds, displaying a healthy sense of fan one-ups-manship that marks Prince fan friendships.

After Lovesexy, the two fell out of touch for 11 years. Tom went on to seminary, got married and became a priest while Fred moved to Montreal to teach English as a Second Language. And that might have been the end of the story if it wasn’t for a major life decision on Fred’s part.

Father Fred looking forward to the Rave tour in 1999, the year he decided to become a priest.

In 1999, Father Fred decided to become a priest, a decision that brought him back to another church conference, this one in Chicago.

“I hadn’t seen Father Tom in so many years and wondered if he was still as big a fan,” Father Fred recalls. “His wife Claudia told me about him taking her to Prince concerts while pregnant. So I knew: Yeah, he’s still a fan!” Father Fred says, adding, “By the way, I took my wife Michelle to see Prince two days after my ordination in 2004 and she was four months pregnant. Is it any wonder he and I are friends?”

Over the years, there have been spontaneous road trips (Father Fred, who drove through the night from Toledo to Minneapolis in 1995, when concert tickets were announced for the low, low price of $19.99) and intimate, once-in-a-lifetime shows (Father Tom, who in 2006 raced home from Prince’s Good Morning America outdoor summer performance to buy one of only 100 tickets offered through the NPG Music Club for a show at Butter, a Manhattan restaurant. This show, which took place in the early morning hours, was the lifetime Prince highlight for Father Tom. He was only a couple of feet from Prince, who performed with no stage or elevated platform. In fact, Father Tom had to kneel the whole time to ensure that others could see, since Father Tom is 6’2” and, well, Prince wasn’t quite that tall!). There were times when being a Prince fan paid off handsomely (Father Fred, who was able to sell his Purple Rain jean jacket to help pay for his 2003 wedding), and times when it was expensive (also Father Fred, who spent major money on the Purple Wear line designed for Merry Go Round, the trendy mall retailer of the 1980s).

Through marriage, fatherhood, and growing careers, the men remained friends and fans. In October 2015, Father Fred was in St. Paul for a deanery meeting.

“I’m such a superfan that if I’m in the Twin Cities I’m not going to NOT drive by Paisley Park,” he says. “Whether it was by divine providence or dumb luck, there was a show that night.” Despite the fact that he was suffering from the double indignity of a sinus infection and laryngitis, Father Fred scored a ticket and went.

“I couldn’t believe I was in Paisley,” he says. “I think I was three feet away from Prince. Everyone was right in the front – there were only 30 people in the Love4OneAnother room. That was a dream come true.” Madonna provided the icing on the cake when she and her entourage showed up. Father Fred recalls that Madonna’s crew left in the middle of a song, and

Prince gestured to the crowd, saying, “All you singers up front, come up on stage.”

Father Fred hesitated since he had no voice.

“The next thing I realize, I’m on stage,” Father Fred says. “And I’m shaking my booty and if I kicked my foot out I would have hit Prince,” he marvels. The next morning, Father Fred was able to tell incredulous colleagues that he’d spent the previous evening at a club with Prince and Madonna.

For his part, Father Tom decided to make the pilgrimage to Minneapolis for the Piano & Microphone shows on January 21, 2016.

“I had never been to Paisley Park,” Father Tom explains, “because most of his shows were last minute, so I didn’t kill myself to go out there. But this was planned.” He remembers leaving with a bad feeling. “He looked very thin and drawn. It left a weird feeling inside me. I thought a lot about something not being right.”

In the aftermath of Prince’s death, the men received a flood of texts and calls. It was then that they realized how much parishioners, friends and church colleagues connected them with Prince.

“I had parishioners calling me and saying, `What happened?’” Father Fred says. “People I hadn’t spoken to in 30 years reached out and said, `You’re the first person I thought of.’”

“All those years you thought people forgot about him,” Father Tom adds. “His live shows sold out but his albums didn’t sell as in the past. There were a lot of people who didn’t get it. For us, his death was like `aha.’ I was justified all these years when people thought I was crazy for listening to Prince.”

A framed picture of Father Tom’s concert tickets, gifted to him by his wife

Father Fred received a call from a colleague who said, “In case you were wondering, you were always right to listen to him.”

Reflecting back on their favorite musician’s life, Fathers Fred and Thomas believe Prince had a plan from day one.

Father Tom says, “He had a dream to do certain things and make music and not let anything interfere with that and stay focused most of the time. What 17-year-old insists on certain things in his contract when he’s never sold a record?”

Father Tom and his family in 2016

Father Fred agrees. “Prince wasn’t driven by things people are in that business – money, fame, success. He made what we’d say aren’t good business decisions. Why not tour? Why not put out a single? He lived to create. His whole life was about constantly moving and leaving behind the past. This last tour, he was in a place where he had to reflect. After the death of Vanity and following the deaths of his mother and father – there was no way to escape. Where is he going to go from here? When there was nowhere to go, I think it killed him.”

Father Thomas adds, “With the Piano & Microphone tour, I think he couldn’t do a live show with a band at that point. He was so frail. I think it was the only way he could continue and probably he needed to deal with the pain problem but if he did that he couldn’t make music for a while, and that was the only thing he knew and desired to do. He got stuck in a box.”

 

Tomorrow: Prince, Sex and God: Father Tom and Father Fred Speak

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *