Uncle’s canonization changed this Grayslake man’s faith, life

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Uncle’s canonization changed this Grayslake man’s faith, life

Rafael Sanchez, nephew of St. Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, speaks to Most Blessed Trinity Academy students in Waukegan during an all-school Mass Feb. 9, 2022. St. Jose Luis was martyred during the Cristero War at age 14. Rafael Sanchez’s father was the brother of St. Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio. After Communion, Sanchez spoke about how his uncle’s life has impacted his faith. Sanchez lives in the local community and actively evangelizes in parishes about his uncle's life. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A student reads during the Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
While speaking to the students, Sanchez looks at an image of his uncle. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students listen to Sanchez's presentation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students receive a blessing during Communion. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students pray during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sanchez gives the students holy cards of his uncle. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Rafael Sánchez was at his home in Grayslake in January 2016, watching the news on television, when his life changed.

Sánchez, a fifth-grade teacher at H.R. McCall Elementary School in Waukegan, wasn’t paying much attention, he said, but he heard the presenter say the name “Sánchez del Río.” That was his father’s last name, and he didn’t think it was terribly common.

He started listening, and searching on the Internet, and learned that José Sánchez del Río, who was 14 years old when he was tortured and killed by government troops in Mexico’s Cristero War in 1928, was to be canonized in October of 2016.

Now Sánchez speaks to church and school groups about his uncle when he can and has become much more connected to his faith and to the church. This summer he will travel to Texas to share his uncle’s story, and he plans to devote even more time to sharing San José del Río’s story when he retires in two years.

“He was very, very strong,” Sánchez said. “He was very young, 14 years old. A lot of not only teenagers but also adults, we need that strength. A lot of people are getting away from the church and away from God. He never got away from his faith.”

Biographies of San José Sánchez del Río, often called “Joselito,” say he wanted to join his older brothers in defending the church when the war broke out, but both his mother and a Cristero general said he was too young.

Eventually, though, after arguing that he was not too young to give his life for Jesus Christ, he was allowed to enlist as the general’s flagbearer. On Jan. 25, 1928, the general’s horse was killed under him, and Joselito gave his horse to the general. He was captured and imprisoned in the sacristy of a local church and told to renounce his faith on pain of death. He refused. He was made to watch a fellow Cristero hang; he still refused.

Finally, on Feb. 10, 1928, soldiers cut the soles of his feet open and forced him to walk to the local cemetery. He would be allowed to live if he said, “Death to Jesus Christ,” but he refused. After being stabbed while shouting “Viva Cristo Rey!” he was shot in the head.

Rafael Sánchez knew Joselito was his uncle in January 2016, when he found his birth certificate and compared the names of his father’s parents to those of the soon-to-be saint. They were the same.

“My father was his brother,” Sánchez said. “But I didn’t even know that he existed until January 2016, when I heard it on the news from Mexico.”

Sánchez said his father, Guillermo Sánchez del Río, died when Sánchez was 10 years old. Sánchez said his father had seven siblings, and he remembers being told one of them had been killed, but he never had much contact with his father’s side of the family.

There had been a falling out, Sánchez explained, when his father got divorced from a civil marriage, something his own mother couldn’t accept, and his father left his hometown of Sahuayo, Michoacán, for Mexico City, where he met and married Sánchez’s mother.

One of Guillermo Sánchez del Río’s siblings moved to Mexico City, but she was the only relative from that side of the family whom Sánchez knew.

When he heard the news about his uncle, his first call was to his sister, who lives in Mexico City. She promised to find out more, Sánchez said.

She eventually connected with the postulator of his sainthood cause, who promised two tickets to San José del Río’s canonization Mass Oct. 16, 2016, in St. Peter’s Square.

“I was an altar boy when I was young,” Sánchez said. “Even sometimes in my youth, I wanted to be a priest, but for some reason, it never happened.”

He wasn’t as connected in the church after coming to the United States 34 years ago, because often when he sought out a church to pray, he would find the doors locked. As he worked to support himself while trying to get teaching credentials here so that he could resume the career he started in Mexico, he found Mass times did not often work with his schedule, and while he never lost his faith, he got into the habit of often missing Mass.

That hasn’t happened since the canonization of Joselito — the name by which Sánchez addresses his uncle. He is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Round Lake and also belongs to an Emmaus group at Santa Maria del Popolo Parish in Mundelein, where he has shared his uncle’s story.

“Every day I talk to him. I ask for intercession for a lot of people,” Sánchez said. “He can intercede for all the priests in the world, living and not living. I ask him to intercede for all the Catholics, all the people in the world so they can have peace, for the members of the Emmaus group and their families, but also to guide me, to give me strength, because following God is very, very hard to do. I ask him to give me a little bit of the strength that he had.”

He likes speaking to groups, especially groups of young people, Sánchez said.

“A lot of the teenagers acquire his name for confirmation,” he said. “I cannot describe how I feel when I talk about him. There are too many emotions inside of me. Happiness. Sometimes I want to cry, sometimes I want to laugh when I talk about him. I imagine what he felt when they cut the soles of his feet and made him walk that way, bleeding, and every time they asked him to give up his faith and he never did. He was getting stronger and stronger. … That’s what gives me the strength to keep going. And after I talk about him, I come back home and I feel so peaceful that I fall asleep like a baby.”


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