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Mario Chavez-Tello

Mario comforts his mother as she recalls the story of watching her entire family fight for their lives.

By Nancy Rosebush Schertzing | Photography by Mike Frieseman

How prayer saved Mario's family from drowning

Mario Chavez-Tello sits in the rectory of his home parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Flint. A high school junior, he talks about being an altar server since age 6.

“Eleven years is a long time. I’m thinking about retiring,” he smiles. “I serve almost every Sunday because Father Paul [Donnelly] asks me to fill in when other boys can’t make it. But I’d like to try being in the pews, where I can tell God everything I’ve done and listen to the Gospel.

“We have the Spanish Mass on Sundays that’s really beautiful. When all the voices come together, they sound so great. After Mass, we like to hang out together and eat breakfast and laugh. The grown-ups talk to me kind of like family. I’d like to be with them instead of on the altar during Mass.

“If I don’t serve, my mom wants me to do something like usher or lector. She is president of the Legion of Mary at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Every Friday morning, she gets together with other members to pray for the world and everybody – especially people who are sick. They read from a book, too. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I remember it has a picture of Mary stepping on a snake. When I look at that picture, it feels like I’m looking right at her.

“My mom says the Blessed Mother protected our family. Nine years ago on July 3, we decided to canoe down the Saginaw River. My father was steering with all of us kids – my sister Dulce sat next to me, and my sister Kenia was with my brother, Reynaldo. I was 8 and Reynaldo was 6 and my sisters were in their teens. Mom took a picture of us from shore because she wasn’t canoeing.

“We were having fun floating along in the sunshine. Then I remember a dark cloud swept overhead and a cold wind blasted our canoe. All of a sudden, the boat capsized, and we were all in the water trying to get a good grip on whatever parts we could. It was hard because the bottom was smooth, but we held on by our fingertips because the current rushed us along from below and rain pelted us from above.

“My mom ran along the shore through numbing weeds and sharp sticks, praying to the Blessed Mother to keep her family safe. Other people heard us yelling for help and tried to reach out to us from shore. Some policemen even tried, but nothing was long enough or fast enough to catch us going past.

“In the water, my dad and sisters fought the current to keep the upturned canoe and all of us afloat. Dulce was holding me up on the canoe as much as she could. Since we were barely holding on, Dad couldn’t risk jerking or sharply turning the canoe out of our grasp. Instead, he kept us steady by kicking and reaching down hoping to feel anything solid below.

“Mom was like a desperate child, and she called out to the Virgin Mary, ‘Mama! Help us, please!’ Finally, my dad’s foot hit something solid. He hooked it around a submerged tree branch and he and my sisters walked along the trunk to get us closer to shore. That got us out of the fastest part of the current so my dad and sisters could finally push the canoe toward the shore and my mom.

“No one remembers how we made it to solid ground. The girls and my mother say they heard a splash as if someone jumped into the water as soon as we climbed ashore. I don’t know about that, but I can still see the sun breaking through the dark clouds as we were laying on the river bank, exhausted but finally safe.”

As Mario’s mother relives the story, the terror of watching her entire family fight for their lives overwhelms her, and she begins to softly weep. Wordlessly, her son rises from his chair and moves to her side. He holds her hand and gently rubs her back as tears stream down her face. For a moment, they comfort each other in silence.

“My mom says, 100 percent, we were touched by God that day. I don’t know. I’ve been on retreat when people were touched by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. That was beautiful. Others who were touched had been singing when all of a sudden something hit them, and they couldn’t stop crying. My story wasn’t like that.

“But what faith means to me is praying the Rosary, or just praying a lot. My mom says ‘Rezar, mucho, mucho, mucho.’ I would say have faith and your prayers will be answered.”