TACOMA – Three times last spring, members of Visitation Parish stretched out their hands at weekend Masses to pray over Gabe Rivera, an altar server facing a devastating cancer diagnosis.
“I was a little apprehensive” about standing in front of the congregation, said Gabe, who was 14 when he was diagnosed in March with stage 4-B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I didn’t want anyone to look at me with kind of a ‘pity-ish’ look, because I knew we would get through it.”
Gabe and his parents, Rene and Maria, accepted the prayers, not just at their regular Saturday evening Mass, but at the early Sunday Mass as well. Having the entire parish pray for Gabe was the idea of Father Nick Wichert, priest administrator at Visitation.
“Gabe has always been a very faithful kid,” Father Wichert said. “He always does what is asked of him. I just thought it was an appropriate thing to do.”
Another child with cancer
Gabe, now a sophomore at Tacoma’s Curtis High School, had been very tired all last winter and lost a lot of weight. His parents decided to take him in for a checkup.
On March 21, they got test results showing cancer “everywhere” in Gabe’s body. “My dad started crying before he even said anything, and that really hit me because my dad never cries,” Gabe said.
Even more difficult for the Riveras was that Gabe is the second of their six children to face cancer: Gabe’s older brother, Jansen, now 18, went through brain cancer treatment when he was 5.
“It is very hard, almost unbearable,” Maria Rivera said, but added, “I am a big believer in prayer. God is great and he has a plan.”
So when Father Wichert suggested Gabe and his family come before the congregation that first Saturday, Gabe’s mom agreed. She felt the family needed all the prayers they could get.
The Riveras were surprised by the parishioners’ response. “It was like we immediately had a family,” Maria Rivera said. “It was nice getting cards from people we don’t even know telling us they were praying for Gabe.”
Father Nick Wichert, far right, organized a group of Gabe Rivera’s friends from Visitation School’s class of 2013 to support the teen as he began chemotherapy last April. Photo: Sonja Klein Dooley
On Gabe’s first day of chemotherapy at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, Father Wichert brought him a surprise: a group of kids from Gabe’s 2013 graduating class at Visitation School.
“At first the nurses wouldn’t let us in Gabe’s room,” recalled Father Wichert, who led the teens in prayer in hopes the nurses would relent. “We twisted their arms a little bit and then they let us go in,” he said.
Suddenly, Gabe was surrounded by 15 of his old friends and his priest — all wearing the required hospital masks. “It was cool, but with their masks, they looked like they were going to operate on me,” Gabe recalled, chuckling.
At the hospital, Father Wichert blessed Gabe’s new medal of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients.
Throughout his seven months of chemotherapy treatments, Gabe continued serving Mass when he felt well enough. “I thought in my head that if I kept working for God, he would pay me back and help me through the treatment,” Gabe said. “I love altar serving.”
He did have one unusual accessory when he served: a knit beanie to cover his head after chemotherapy made his hair fall out. Although Father Wichert OK’d the beanie, Gabe said he felt self-conscious about wearing it on the altar, because he was raised with the rule “no hats in church.”
Gabe Rivera, an altar server at Visitation Parish in Tacoma, kept his faith strong throughout his treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Photo: Kim Haub
Seeking Pier Giorgio’s help
Besides asking for prayers at Mass, Father Wichert asked Gabe’s family, friends and the parish to invoke the intercession of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who ministered to Italy’s poor and died of polio on July 4, 1925, at age 24. Beatified in 1990 by Pope John Paul II, Frassati “is in need of one more miracle to be canonized, so I thought we’d give it a shot,” Father Wichert said.
After four rounds of chemotherapy, Gabe learned on July 2 that two medical scans showed no signs of cancer. “The doctor said, ‘This is surprising, it’s all gone,’” recalled Gabe, who turned 15 a few days later.
Although Gabe didn’t have to undergo radiation, he still needed precautionary chemotherapy, which he finished Oct. 24. “It wasn’t as awful as I thought it would be,” he said.
His cancer-free diagnosis meant standing before Visitation’s parishioners once again, this time in thanksgiving. “We invited him to come back before all the people at all the Masses and share that good news,” Father Wichert said.
Gabe credits his faith, and the support and care of others, for getting him through his cancer ordeal. Now he’s singing in his high school choir and is looking forward to playing football next season.
“Faith gives you a good mentality, knowing that you can hope for something better,” Gabe said. “I never thought this was the end.”