WINDSOR TERRACE — For the first time since The Tablet joined with the Archbishop John Hughes Knights of Columbus Council No. 481 to create the Christmas art contest 12 years ago, one student will receive special recognition as an honoree for his artwork at the award ceremony: eighth-grader and special needs student Diego Tecpanecatl, a parishioner at St. Helen’s Church in Howard Beach.
And beyond recognizing Diego’s creative mind, heart and spirit, that night will also be an ode to the bond between Diego, his mother Jessy Briones, his brother, Adrian, and his extended church family member — religious education teacher Mary Ruane.
Diego’s story with The Tablet began in early December, weeks before the art contest’s deadline. Ruane heard about the art contest through the Knights of Columbus at her parish. Sitting down with the family after catechism class one day, Ruane extended the art contest invite to Diego.
All she asked him was to think about what Christmas is about. With crayons and blank paper in hand, Diego drew himself talking to God. Where was God? Living up in the clouds above him and the Christmas tree.
Ruane said her goal was to have Diego express what was in his heart.
“I said to him, ‘Do you know where love comes from and he pointed up to God in heaven, and I said, yes, God definitely loves you,’ and you love — you love mom, you love your brother, you love your abuela (grandmother).”
She continued with her lesson, asking Diego to think a little deeper about his faith.
“I asked, ‘Do you know where that feeling comes from?’ and he was looking at me blank, and then I said, ‘You know on Valentine’s Day when everybody is talking about love, do you know what that means?’ And he said, ‘Yes, hearts, it comes from your heart.’”
Diego then drew a heart on the poster.
Yet upon completion, Ruane wasn’t sure what grade category Diego would fall under because his comprehension skills aren’t as advanced as his peers. So when she called The Tablet offices for guidance, it became an invitation for the entire family to meet The Tablet’s staff.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in January, Briones, her two boys and Ruane spent the day doing what they normally do once a week in religious education classes — learn more about the church.
Their lesson that day was about how a Catholic newspaper is made. The newspaper became their textbook as Adrian flipped through the pictures about the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and realized the event corresponded with his Mexican ethnicity.
Diego was shy at first, but when asked about his day, he joyfully responded with a small smile on his face.
“I like to go to church,” he said.
Ask Diego what his favorite story in the Bible is and Ruane will happily respond.
“He loves the story of Adam and Eve,” she said. “He’ll tell you, ‘The serpent, oh, the serpent told her to eat the apple.’”
Briones watched as her middle-school boys interacted with each other and with others in the office. Despite the sacrifices she undergoes as a working, single mother who also takes care of her parents, Briones said that her children’s faith formation won’t be compromised. She continued to bring her boys to religion class while earning her degree and taking care of her father who recently passed after battling cancer.
“She’s really working very hard to help the boys learn their faith,” Ruane said.
The mom said that relying on God has been her saving grace. As she drew closer to the church, her kids followed.
Diego received his first communion last year in a special ceremony at St. Helen’s that was filled with family members.
“He really is getting better about trying to understand that God is there, his friend and loves him, and why we love God and why we go to church,” Ruane added. “So it’s really working out very well.”