In her illness and death, a girl brings others closer to God

BRAINTREE -- Andrea Villalba, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School in Needham, said she thinks about her friend Christina Dangond Lacouture every day, every single day. She used the word friend, but she later changed it. Christina, about two to three years younger, is more like a "little sister to me," she said to The Pilot May 14.

Villalba fluctuated between past and present when talking about Christina. Christina is -- sometimes was -- someone she looks up to, she said, someone she wishes she could be even "somewhat more like." Someone with a faith that shone so brightly that "you could see Jesus in her;" a girl defined by a strength that was evident in all who met her, even as she battled an illness that would eventually end her life at the age of 11.

In knowing Christina, Villalba said she was brought closer to God. She prays now every day, and in prayer she "always sees Christina's face."

Christina died in Boston on Jan. 26 at the age of 11. Her death wasn't sudden, and for those who knew her, it wasn't unexpected.

In the summer of 2012, Christina, six, began to complain of intense pains. Her parents, Fernando Dangond and Monica Lacouture of Weston, brought her to multiple doctors and surgeons. They couldn't find a diagnosis. Months passed.

Lacouture, speaking to The Pilot April 27, said during that time, she and Dangond, a practicing neurologist, saw their daughter become "worse and worse."

It wouldn't be until Dec. 12, 2012 that a diagnosis was finally given to Christina. In an emergency room for an agonizing headache, Christina and her family were told she had stage 4 Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive type of cancer that develops in a body's soft tissue. With more than 10 metastases in her body, it was predicted Christina had only days left to live.

Christina started an aggressive treatment, and her family prayed. "Unbelievably, six weeks into it, most of her disease was gone," said Lacouture.

"She was given a few weeks, and she lived five and a half years," she said. "And not only did she live five and a half years, she lived an amazing five and a half years."

It was very soon after Christina was diagnosed that she and her family started two Facebook pages, one in Spanish and later one in English, asking for "1 Million Prayers for Christina Dangond Lacouture." The pages, still in use, quickly gained thousands of followers from across the globe. Prayers came in.

The outpouring of faith and love moved the family and strengthened their own faith in God, and it touched Christina in a profound way.

Christina, "from early on," came to see her cancer as something that "God was allowing so that people who were not close to him would become close to him," said Lacouture.

At around seven, Christina saw her illness almost as a blessing, rather than a debilitating crutch. Once a week, she posted video messages on Facebook, updating the world on her condition and offering messages of love, strength and prayer.

"Hi, thanks for praying for me! I'm feeling really good. I love you so much! Never forget to say 'Jesus, I trust in you,'" said Christina in a short video posted on the English page Sept. 27, 2016. She's outside, a basketball under her arm and a smile on her face.

When she prayed, Christina "always asked (Jesus) when she was praying, 'Do with my life whatever you want to do with it.' She understood that when she was feeling fine, it was because He wanted her to feel fine, so when she was in remission, she would ask, 'If it's your will, don't allow the cancer to come back,'" said Lacouture.

"She would never say, 'Heal me.' She always said, 'Do with my life whatever you want to do,'" she continued.

People around the world posted prayers, with the Spanish page boasting 60,000 followers. Many on the page and in reaching out directly to Christina's family commented that Christina's strength in spite of her illness brought them closer to God, closer than they ever thought possible. Some people said they were brought to God for the first time, after a lifetime without faith.

Chistina and her family wanted to do more, though, to bring people closer to God. In the months and years after her diagnosis, they began to organize rosary groups and retreats.

The family also heard of a proposed Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in their home country of Colombia. The proposed church would be built in an area stricken with poverty, and was in need of funding.

The family began to raise money. They held fundraisers and collected donations, and together made rosaries to sell for the cause. In 2016, they started a nonprofit, Build the Faith, Inc., to "help build the Catholic faith around the world." The next year, Christina and her family flew out to Colombia to present the church with a check for $20,000.

In a picture capturing the moment, Christina, in a blue hat and a blue summer dress, a smile on her face, presents pastor Father Bayer with a huge check. In February of this year, a month after Christina died, Lacouture flew back out to Colombia to present the church with another check, this time for $25,000.

The large portion of the funds came from the sale of rosaries, at $30 per rosary. They're handmade, some with a small image of Christina on them, and they are created locally and with love. That's something that Villalba, the 14-year-old who saw Christina as a "little sister" and is a longtime family friend, can attest to.

Villalba has made more than ten rosaries, each one taking a little more than thirty minutes each. In making one, "you have to be precise," she said. "You have to have the exact number of beads, you need to get all the coloring right, and you have to do prayers. You pray while you do this; it makes the process more holy."

"When you know that people are getting these rosaries, you know that it's a special rosary their getting. Not just one that you made -- you made it out of the goodness of your heart, with your time and prayer, for Christina and for what she stands for," she said.

She used her time, her love, her faith to create her rosaries, but Villalba didn't work alone.

Villalba is a girl scout, a member of Troop 73848 based out of the St. John - St. Paul Collaborative in Wellesley, and headed by troop leader Kim Meehan. According to Meehan, speaking to The Pilot May 8, the troop has historically been involved in community service, supporting nonprofits and volunteering around the community. So, when Villalba told the troop Christina's story and introduced them to Build the Faith, Inc. late last year, the troop, after meeting Lacouture, felt compelled to step into action.

"I said, 'What can we do that they need?'" said Meehan. She learned about the rosaries, and she and her troop began making dozens of rosaries together and selling them to the parish community.

In only weeks, "the girls raised $7,000 that was all donated to Build the Faith," said Meehan.

After that, and after some of the girls met Christina and were touched by her story, the troop has now "sort of taken (Build the Faith) on as a community partner," she explained.

Meehan's daughter, Tessa Meehan, a student at Arlington Catholic High School, was one of the girls involved in helping to sell the rosaries. Tessa, being a teenager, as she put it to The Pilot May 8, said when her mom first approached her about helping out the troop, she was reluctant.

"At first I was like 'Ugh,'" said Tessa, laughing. She said her mom asked her to "pretty much walk up to everyone after multiple Masses" and ask them to buy a rosary.

She was embarrassed, but after seeing Lacouture at the first Mass and seeing "how happy I made her," she began to soften her stance.

Then she saw Christina at the second Mass, and saw that "she was so happy and she was going through so much."

"Seeing her, it made me feel good about what I was doing," said Tessa. "I was in awe, I was just so amazed by this young girl."

"I'm not a big public speaker, but after seeing her, I was just so glad in what I was doing, and I finally felt that I was making a difference," she continued, adding that she has "never met someone who was so happy and so involved in her faith."

Tessa said that when Christina died, she asked her entire school to say a prayer for her. Christina and her family, she said, "have such incredible faith. There are just no words to explain how amazing and how involved their faith is."

Kim Meehan, like her daughter, also noted Christina's faith. That faith, she said, "is astounding to me."

The first weekend in June Troop 73848 will have another fundraiser, Meehan explained, and there are plans to engage religious education groups, as well.

Christina is "just a great role model for all kids studying in the Catholic faith, because here's someone that's their age, she likes all the things that they like, but yet she met this challenge with absolute steadfast faith," trusting in Christ completely, she said.

At Christina's funeral, everyone wore bright colors. It was Christina's idea, Lacouture said.

"I want everyone to wear colors, I want everyone to be happy," Lacouture remembers her daughter told her.

They should wear the colors of the rainbow, Lacouture remembers Christina said, because on "that day, I will be so happy going back to God." Lacouture, staying true to her daughter's request, did.

Villalba remembers her friend as "always happy," a fighter, a soul filled with faith and strength; "a miracle."

"It's hard now, I miss her, but we know that she is happier with God," she said. "She is in a very, very good place now, for sure."

She recalled her favorite memory of Christina, a mental snapshot taken about two years before, held onto and cherished.

Villalba and Christina, two kids, sit on a ski lift. Their families are on a trip together, and Christina, in-between treatments, has a strength she hasn't had in a long time. The girls, friends close enough to almost be family, chat, and Villalba makes Christina laugh. It's a long laugh, and Villalba joins in. The two sit, laughing, as the lift moves steadily onward across the sky.