Diocesan students ‘Celebrate the Beauty of Every Child’
by noting that every life is given a purpose by God


By Dave Jolivet
JolivetDB@comcast.net

FALL RIVER, Mass. — It was a celebration befitting a cathedral whose namesake is St. Mary, Our Lady of Assumption, our Heavenly mother who always has open arms for all her children, beginning more than two millennium ago, with the Child Jesus.

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More than 800 students along with teachers, school staff, diocesan education officials, diocesan priests and Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., filled the cathedral in Fall River on May 17 for a Mass to “Celebrate the Beauty of Every Child,” followed by a joyous, inspirational concert by singer-songwriter Christopher Duffley, an autistic teen-ager who became blind shortly after birth, and is blessed with the gift of perfect pitch.

Schools from every elementary, junior high school and high school in the diocese were well-represented, evidenced by the large caravan of yellow buses that converged on the Fall River church.

The nearly three-hour event concentrated on how despite each person’s personal obstacles, everyone is the same in the eyes of the Lord. There was an emphasis on what society would call “disabilities,” yet it’s often the case that those considered disabled don’t view it that way. They are as able as anyone as much as they can be. The true disabilities are those who cannot see past others’ differences and not seeing just how able others truly are.

The youth of today seem to be much more tolerant and accepting than those of past generations — at a time when tolerance and acceptance are more needed now than ever.

Bishop da Cunha concentrated his homily on that day’s Gospel, John 14:1-16 where Jesus tells His disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me … I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” He told the children, “God wants to be with us. When your hearts are in trouble, when you are suffering, when you have difficulties remember Jesus told us, ‘I will be there for you and with you.’

“But we have to remember the other part. We have to treat each other with the same respect, dignity and value God gives us. No matter where we come from; no matter the color of our skin; no matter the language we speak; no matter what financial status or educational status we have, we are all created by God with the same value and dignity. And when we treat each other with that respect and recognition of that value, we will live in a better world and our lives will be much better and more peaceful.”

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Following the Mass, as students reenergized on snacks, the winners of the Catholic Schools Alliance’s essay contest were announced, with both coming from Espirito Santo School in Fall River.

Fourth-grader Ella Raposa drew a picture of Jesus with welcoming open arms. She said, “Don’t judge people by the way they look, because God loves them the way they are.”

Chantelle Miranda, an eighth-grader wrote an essay titled, “How do I see the beauty in all God’s children?” With traces of emotion creeping in, school principal Andrew J. Raposo read the essay before the capacity congregation. Quoting Miranda, he said, “The idea that being different is unfavorable is a construct built by society that we as children of God are obligated to completely tear apart. God made us in His image and we need to respect ourselves and others the way God intended. The imperfections God gave His children sometimes stick out, but this does not mean God grants us permission to point them out or belittle others.”

Miranda, who had lost a hand in an accident at a young age admitted, “Through life, I have met people who do and don’t see the light that God has lit in my soul, and have had both positive and negative experiences with people.” She said the negative people affected her and she “began to question if God perhaps ‘went wrong’ with me, and that I was not seen as one of his children.”

The eighth-grader said that she did realize God made her the way He intended and that “I wish that I never doubted God in the way that I did but I can’t help but be thankful that I did because now I truly see the beauty in all God’s children. Now as a strong Christian, I can only hope that those who saw me as unfortunate or useless can now see that those who are different are not damaged or broken, but perfect in the eyes of God.”

Raposo told The Anchor, “I am amazed at the amount of courage and faith that Chantelle has. It [her accident] has never stopped her from living her life. She is a mature young lady, very bright, and lets nothing get in her way. She is grounded by her faith in God, as well as caring parents who guide her.”

With such an uplifting and powerful start, the stage was then set for Duffley to take hold of the hearts of many at the cathedral.

Duffley, who turned age 18 just days after his Fall River appearance, was born in Florida in 2001 at only 26 weeks. His biological mother used drugs through her pregnancy and Christopher was born at a mere one pound, 12 ounces, with traces of cocaine in his tiny system. He developed an eye condition that would quickly take away his sight, and he was autistic.

His aunt, Christine Duffley and her husband Steve, from New Hampshire tracked Christopher down and bonded with him. They prayed for an answer as to what was to be done with the boy and they received a strong confirmation from God that they should adopt him.

Before Christopher ever spoke a word, he sang at four years old. And it was discovered that he had perfect pitch. 

Christopher has utilized his special gifts before audiences of every kind across the country including special needs groups, schools, and has sung the National Anthem twice at Fenway Park and one NASCAR event and sang during Pope Francis’ 2015 Philadelphia visit.

He currently is a sophomore at Holy Family Academy in Manchester, N.H.

Performing along with his trusted drummer and road manager, David St. Germain, the young man quickly implored the students to get on their feet and “worship our great Lord and Savior together” with the song “Here I am to Worship.”

Following a couple of inspirational songs, Duffley addressed the audience already captured by his talent and sincerity.

“I can’t see you,” he shouted. “I shouldn’t be staying here today. In fact I shouldn’t be standing anywhere. I shouldn’t be standing here today … but I am!” eliciting great applause from the students. “From the moment I was born the medical staff valued me so much that they took incredible steps to save me.”

Duffley told the students the story of his early days and how an aunt from New Hampshire tracked him down in foster care to make contact with him. He told his audience how surprised his aunt was with his blindness and other medical conditions, and how she and her husband Stephen, agonized over what to do with young Christopher, “through many tears and hours of prayer.”

“Together, with her husband it came down to this,” Duffley continued, “they believed that every life is created in the image and likeness of God. I was family. How could she leave me behind?

“Trusting in God’s plan for my life, Christine and Stephen Duffley welcomed me into their home when I was 15 months old. And in case you’re wondering, my siblings (four, ages one to nine at the time) did take a vote and it was a landslide decision. They wanted me too. Well our family of six became seven,” again prompting great cheers from the students.

He went on to say his aunt “trusted in God’s plan for her life, not her plans. And she realized that, like with her other children, God would be in control.”

Duffley also told the students that he banged his head, repeated everything he didn’t like, didn’t like loud noises, and didn’t like to touch unknown things. But he added, “I knew every part of the Mass by three years old. Isn’t that interesting? And I sang any song I heard. Isn’t that weird?”

Duffley was diagnosed with autism at age five, but music was already a large part of his life. He said his mom and dad decided to use music therapy to get him to communicate. “I love music, why not try music therapy. Maybe it would get me to have a real conversation. Well, it worked! As you can probably see I can now have a conversation with you.”

“My parents always focused on what I could do, not what I couldn’t do,” he added. And through music therapy it was learned he had perfect pitch and had “unlimited music potential.”

He shared that his parents taught him the song, “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” to show that God loved him that “though I couldn’t see with my physical eyes, I could see with my heart.”

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During the concert, Justin Luis Reis, a senior at Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River who has battled various physical ailments all his life, was invited to give a witness of what receiving a Catholic education has mean to him over the last four years. 

After being bullied for years in public schools because of his disabilities, Reis was welcomed warmly by fellow students, faculty and staff, and became known as “The Mayor of Connolly,” because of his positive outlook and his great interest in the arts and sports at school. 

Reis brought attention to two mottos at the school: “Find yourself here,” and “Not only be hearers but doers of the Word.”

“Bishop Connolly is one of the best places for a young person to find themself,” said Reis. “This is exactly what happened . When I attended a public school I was bullied a lot.” Of his first day at Connolly Reis said, “Everyone was accepting and respectful of one another. Bullying is taken seriously.

“At Connolly you learn to be proud of who you are. God commands us to take care of each other they way Jesus took care of people. I have a great love for my Catholic faith.”

Reis referenced a 1962 speech by President John F. Kennedy when he was requesting support for the U.S. space effort to land a man on the moon. 

A great admirer of JFK, Reis said, “The line that stands out to me is: ‘We choose to go to the moon before the end of the decade [with Reis pouding his fist on the podium as JFK had] … not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’ Both myself and President Kennedy were willing to face challenges that would come our way. And we were up to those challenges.”

“Justin Luis Reis is a wonderful young man,” Connolly principal Christopher Myron told The Anchor. “Justin is our resident saint who will be missed at Connolly. He has worked diligently in all aspects of the school and shared his gifts in fine arts and athletics. He is not only an inspiration but he is a faithful servant of Jesus.”

Upon Duffley’s return he told the students, “Here I am on a mission to share with you that every life matters. No matter what problems you are going through. Amen?” 

A great “Amen” resounded through the cathedral from the hundreds listening in awe.

He next performed “Stand By Me,” saying, “It’s a song about what Justin just talked about, friendship.”

Before concluding his concert, Duffley told the students, “My message is simple. Remember to open your heart to let God use you. Even though it may be hard, He needs you and I to share His love with the world.”



© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts