NORWALK—Jose Sanchez del Rio cried in agony as the Mexican soldiers forced him to walk through town barefoot after they cut the soles of his feet with their machetes. They told the 14-year-old boy, “If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life.”
The choice was simple—he could renounce his Catholic faith or be executed by the government. But for Joselito, there was only one choice. Praying the rosary, he staggered toward a mass grave at the edge of town but refused to deny Christ, and his last words before they shot him twice in the head were “Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King!
The night of February 10, 1928, a young boy suffered brutal torture and martyrdom rather than renounce Christ at a time in Mexico’s history when the Marxist government was executing priests, persecuting Catholics, and shuttering churches, convents and schools in order to stamp out the Catholic faith.
St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, who was one of youngest martyrs of the Cristero War, was canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. He was little known outside of Mexico until recent years, but today a tremendous devotion to him has blossomed at St. Joseph-St. Ladislaus Parish in Norwalk, inspired by the completion of a magnificent chapel in his honor, which was recently blessed by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at a ceremony 700 people attended.
“Send your blessings we pray, O Lord, on this chapel which you have allowed us to build,” Bishop Caggiano said. “And grant that all the faithful who come here, holding fast to your word and to your holy mysteries, may feel the presence of Jesus Christ who promised to be with us and all who gather in his name, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God forever, amen.”
Bishop Caggiano told the children who filled the chapel: “When you have an opportunity to come here to pray, ask St. Joselito to help you because we know it is not easy to be faithful to Jesus, but that is the only way you can be truly happy.” He praised Father Edicson Orozco, the pastor, and Father Otoniel Lizcano, the parochial vicar, who brought the devotion to St. Joselito to the parish and worked tirelessly to have the chapel built.
Father Edicson, who was named pastor in 2019 and brought the two parish communities together, saw the project reach completion. He stressed the importance of the witness of the martyrs throughout the history of the Church.
“The true nature of our beloved Catholic Church has been defined entirely by the martyrs,” he said. “It is through their witness, their sacrifice and their lasting breath on earth that we see the same victory of Jesus Christ over death.”
The story of this young martyr and his chapel is one of enduring faith, hard work and the strong belief of the parishioners that St. Joselito interceded from heaven and blessed the project, which was several years in the making.
Homage to the young martyr
A native of Colombia, Father Otoniel was ordained in 1999 at St. Augustine Cathedral and spent many years ministering to the Mexican and Latino communities in the Diocese of Bridgeport. He would often make pilgrimages to Mexico to pay homage to the martyrs who died during the Cristero War, and at one point, he was asked whether he had ever gone to Sahuayo, the hometown of the martyr Jose Sanchez del Rio. Until that time, he had never heard of the boy, who was little known outside of Mexico.
“In January 2017, I had an idea that came to me when I was preparing to celebrate Mass at St. Gregory the Great in Danbury,” Father recalled. “I said to the young saint, ‘I will go to visit your shrine, but I need to see a sign that you are alive and not dead.”
A few months after the canonization, he booked a flight for Mexico out of LaGuardia Airport. The trip had an inauspicious start. Twenty minutes after the plane took off, a turbine exploded and smoke started to fill the cabin. The passengers panicked, and a woman beside Father became hysterical.
“I took a little prayer card of St. Joselito from my wallet and began to pray to him for all the people to be safe,” he said. “I gave the prayer card to the woman and said, ‘Pray, pray to him, and he will help us.’”
The pilot was able to make an emergency landing in Charlotte, N.C., and the next day Father resumed his trip. When he arrived at the rectory of the Church of Cristo Rey in Sahuayo in Western Mexico, he asked the secretary for permission to say Mass in honor of St. Joselito. She was excited because at the time they had no priest to celebrate Mass. When he returned the next day, the parish administrator was anxious to talk to him about something that happened.
“Father, I dreamt the holy martyr St. Jose Sanchez del Rio told me you must take our gold cross with a relic of him and use it to pray with the sick,” she said.
“I said to her, ‘Wait, wait.’ She wanted to take the cross out of the safe, but I told her, “Wait until after I say Mass.”
She explained that the young martyr appeared three times in her dreams and told her to give him the relic. The first time she thought it was her own idea, but then he appeared again with the same request. After the third time, she sat up in bed and startled her husband. When he asked what was wrong, she told him about the message.
Father told her, “I need a sign. Let me see if something happens at Mass.”
Everything proceeded normally, and then after Communion, he asked anyone in the crowded church who was sick to come forward for a blessing. Immediately, the whole congregation, young and old, came forward “like a wave” with their requests.
They began shouting out their ailments: “Father, I have a brain tumor.” “Father, I have worms in my eyes.” “Father, my kidneys aren’t working.” “Father, I have back pain…”
“People were shouting out and telling me their problems,” he said. Even though they kept pressing forward, their cries suddenly seemed to subside, and in the silence, he clearly heard a small voice that said, “You must take this cross with you, and with this cross, you will bless the sick.”
“It was my sign from the holy martyr that I must take the cross,” Father said. “I must take the relic.”
Photos by Joe Pisani and David Riccio
A new home for Joselito
Father returned to Connecticut with the cross, which contains a first-class relic of St. Joselito, surrounded by pictures of him. At the top is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and at the base is a statuette of Christ the King, recalling the martyr’s final words, “Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe!”
When Father Otoniel was reassigned to St. Joseph Church in South Norwalk, he began to tell parishioners about the young martyr and would regularly celebrate Mass in his honor.
“When I started the Mass, few people knew about St. Joselito,” Father said. “But now there is a strong devotion, and people come from as far away as New York.”
On April 16, 2018, as he was saying 7:30 morning Mass in the chapel at the former convent, a small drop of blood appeared on the pall covering the chalice. The pall, which had a picture of St. Joselito, had been given to him in Sahuayo.
“After the consecration, I looked for a moment and saw this wasn’t there before,” he said. “Something extraordinary had happened, so I took some pictures and still have them. To me, it looked like a right foot of a human formed in blood, and I realized that St. Joselito was alive in that chapel and that it was a place for him.”
He showed the pall to the then-pastor, Father Peter Lenox, who examined the red mark that appeared beneath the vinyl cover of the linen pall.
“After four days, it disappeared, and I talked to Father Lenox about the possibility of making a chapel for St. Joselito,” Father Otoniel recalled.
The pastor approved the project, which began in 2020 but was delayed several times because of COVID-19.
“Building a chapel was not our original intention,” Father Otoniel said. “But I believe St. Joselito wanted it built. The chapel is a holy place to celebrate daily Mass as well as adoration. It is a shrine for people to pray to God and to St. Joselito. He is the one who made the chapel happen, and he brought people to help that I didn’t even know.”
One of those people was David Riccio, a foremost expert in liturgical design, beautification of churches and painting techniques. Riccio is a president and principal at John Canning & Co. of Cheshire, a leading architectural arts restoration contractor, known for its work on national landmarks, museums, theaters, churches and religious sites.
Originally, Riccio was asked to offer technical advice to Father Lenox, who since then was appointed episcopal vicar for liturgy and worship of the diocese, and to then-parochial vicar Michael Clark, who is now rector of the Guild of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Georgetown.
“When I showed up, Father Otto told me about the miracle, and I was stunned,” Riccio said. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and found it then, as now, very profound and moving.”
Riccio spent several days decorating the wall behind the sanctuary.
“I wanted to make it as beautiful as possible, and ideas were flooding into my mind about colors and patterns and design,” he recalled.
“From this one simple visit, I became inspired, and I became immersed in the life of St. Jose Sanchez del Rio,” he said, “As I was decorating the altar wall, I envisioned what the chapel could be and found myself coming up with more ideas to beautify the space. I wanted this little chapel to be a place of beauty, truth and reverence.”
Riccio would return on weekends and work eight to 10 hours a day. During the week, he was regularly traveling to his company’s projects in Boston, New York, Detroit and Virginia. He occasionally brought his children James and Isabella with him to South Norwalk to give them an appreciation of his work beautifying churches, along with Grace Moran, the company’s director of liturgical arts.
“I needed the youth to help me out on the ceiling,” he said. “They were so excited to be a part of this. They all realized what they were doing would leave an indelible mark for others.”
“By the time we left on any particular day, the room would be transformed,” he recalled. “I wanted them to see the power of physical transformation and spiritual transformation. There is something much greater than ourselves, and if we can help others by letting them enter a place that is beautiful, it helps our relationship with Christ. Beauty is truth, and that truth is ultimately Christ.”
His volunteer work, which lasted months, created a magnificent chapel that has awed countless pilgrims and parishioners who come to pay homage to St. Joselito.
Father Otoniel said: “On behalf of the St. Joseph and St. Ladislaus community, we thank David Riccio for his great effort and all the time he spent working on the chapel in honor of St. Jose Sanchez del Rio. His inspiration and faithfulness made the project outstanding. We are so happy to have David Riccio complete this awesome chapel in Norwalk. We can have many artists, but there was only one David Riccio, who was gifted from God to do this great and fantastic work.”
Riccio, who would drive an hour to Norwalk to do stenciling on the ceiling and walls, said he incorporated symbols of St. Joselito, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Częstochowa in the Victorian/Gothic style of the space. He did all the stenciling by hand, much of it in 23 carat gold leaf.
The work, which he says “took on a life of its own,” was also inspired by St. Giles Church in Cheadle, England, and the high Gothic decoration designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, in which virtually every square inch of the church has a decoration.
“Here it is a small space, and my feeling was that I wanted the faithful, when they come in, to be enveloped by the room around them,” he said. “And that is an unusual approach for me.”
Whenever Riccio went there—often for two days in a row—Father Otoniel would bless his hands and pray with him before he started working.
“No one told me what I could or couldn’t do,” he said. “No one made one decision for me. Father Otto said to me, ‘St. Joselito is making the decisions.’ I had been called to volunteer.”
As the work progressed over those long months, whenever Father Otoniel was asked, “Who is in charge of this project?” he would promptly respond, “St. Joselito is in charge in heaven. He is in charge of everything.”
When Father Otoniel looks back on the events that led to the creation of this chapel to honor a simple Mexican boy who suffered and died for Christ, everything is very clear to him. “He didn’t appear in a big church,” Father says. “He appeared in that chapel, which meant he wanted that chapel to be his home—a place where he would be content, a place where he walked.”
“Joselito is a messenger from God,” Father said. “We are on a journey to heaven, and he is here for us. He is telling us that we must pray and have the courage that he had…to believe and to make offerings to God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is a model for us to follow. He is a messenger from God, who offers hope for the hopeless, for the children and the youth and the new generations. He is like a glass of water in the desert for all those who are thirsty for God.”