By Chris Stone
A cancer-stricken woman was given no hope of recovery, but a friend gave her a rosary. For three months she recited the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers.
Upon returning to her doctor, she was found cancer-free. The physician was astonished.
So says Tony Blanco, a retired businessman, recalling one of his rosaries and the impact it made.
Blanco chokes up as he finishes the story.
“Now you tell me,” he said in the back of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Bonita before the start of Mass. “It just brings tears to my eyes. Unbelievable.”
A parishioner at Corpus Christi, Blanco makes rosaries — beaded prayer guides —and gives them away in hopes of reviving the Roman Catholic tradition in a technology-distracted world.
Blanco, a church hospitality minister, brings his homemade devotions to church every Sunday and hands them out to unsuspecting parishioners.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said Jennifer Cromwell, seated in the pew in front of Blanco. “Not many people just give you something randomly, but I did appreciate it. It made me feel special,” she said after Mass.
Church isn’t the only place he distributes his colorful rosaries. He’s been known to give them out at restaurants, doctor’s office waiting rooms, airplanes – almost everywhere he goes.
As Holy Week neared, he was making white rosaries for the children in the parish who will receive their First Communion, for people in Tijuana and for the pastor, the Rev. Efrain Bautista, to send to the Philippines.
Blanco explained his passion.
“I believe that the rosary is really the weapon of our times,” he said. “If everyone would pray the rosary, there would be no war, no problems in the world because the rosary takes care of all of that. I do believe that by praying the rosary, you help the world, you help people and you help yourself and you get closer to our Lord.”
But he concedes that the rosary isn’t prayed as often as in prior generations.
“The rosary in the old times used to be very popular,” the 72-year-old said. “But people in the new world that we live in (see it as) too tedious. It takes too long, etc. etc. But they don’t understand that praying the rosary is being with the Lord through our lady.”
“This is my mission with Our Lady of Fatima…. The rosary has been … my GPS to the Lord,” he said. (By one tradition, the prayers were inspired by the Marian apparitions in Fátima, Portugal in 1917.)
Blanco’s rosary recipients mostly greet the gift with appreciation, he said, but about one in 500 people reject it — some declining because they are not Catholic.
Commercially made rosaries range from less than $1 to a 14-karat gold edition priced at $42,694. Blanco never accepts money for his, but his daughter has occasionally accepted a donation to defray material expenses. He has taught others in his family the art.
Blanco began making rosaries at age 8 — taught by the principal of his Cuban school run by the Marist Brothers. (His family fled Castro’s regime in 1962 and moved to Chicago. All he brought with him were his rosaries, he said.)
Other than a short time in his life after he first moved to the United States when he was too poor to buy supplies, Blanco has been relentless in his calling to make rosaries.
God knows how many he has made, but his work has found its way into houses around the globe from the Philippines to Haiti to Cuba. Already this year, he has made around 400. He recently bought enough materials to produce 1,600.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing,” said his daughter Iris. “He’s an inspiration and he brings a lot of comfort to a lot of people. We’ll be in the grocery store and he will give someone one of his rosaries, and they just break down and cry and say ‘This is the best gift ever.’”
Iris said she has a million stories about how people are comforted by the beads with crucifix and medal — even if they are not Catholic.
“When things get tough,” she said, “they automatically go to my dad’s rosaries. And for some reason, things just smooth out.”
Blanco likes to tell the story of when he was flying to Miami, making his rosaries in flight, and an attendant inquired what he was doing. He explained and gave her the completed rosary.
As he walked off the plane, the flight attendant was in tears. She explained that her mother recently died and she placed her lifelong rosary in her casket. She hugged Blanco, saying, “This is a word from the Lord.”
Blanco tells of people, who upon receiving the rosary, say they haven’t used theirs since childhood or have one but had misplaced it.
The Rev. Claro Ortiz, associate pastor, said of Blanco: “He’s a good guy. I think he has a deep faith in God and Mother Mary… He is encouraging the people.”
As a member of the Holy Rosary Society of Corpus Christi Church, Blanco gives his rosaries to families who host the weekly prayer groups.
“Tony is a gift to us. He is so good,” said society member Nipa Espinueva. “He’s very devoted. It is natural for him because of his love for the Blessed Mother.”
Gina Lupian, who also attends the rosary society gatherings, said, “One thing I read the other day is that the devil hates the rosary because you are repeating Jesus’ name and Mother Mary’s name over 50 times. I believe in its power to protect. You’ll see rosaries hanging from people’s rearview mirror…. It is a calming prayer.”
Blanco’s lighter side peeks through occasionally.
Upon hearing that his pastor’s favorite indulgence was Krispy Kreme donuts, Blanco created a comically oversized “rosary” with donuts, donut holes and crullers standing in for prayer beads.
A room in Blanco’s modest Spring Valley home s filled with supplies: colorful beads, crucifixes, chains, wires and medals. (He can see his church from his kitchen window, and says a prayer facing Corpus Christi every morning.)
His wife, Rosa, and great-grandson, Santese, help place the beads on wire and cut pieces of chain. It then takes him about 40 minutes to complete a rosary.
While he often prays the rosary as he makes them, the time it takes to complete a rosary varies because sometimes his eyes dart back and forth as he takes in the exciting part of his two favorite sports — baseball and boxing.
The baseball interest is understandable since his children, grandchildren and great grandson in the sport. The little ones’ trophies sit in a cabinet next to the hanging rosary beads.
While beads vary in size — 6mm for rosaries for babies (as keepsake) — special occasion rosaries are made with 8mm spheres.
He places each rosary in a folded pamphlet containing instructions for saying the rosary (five sets of “decades” with additional prayers). He also has a website: praymyrosary.com.
Blanco has customized rosaries for special needs – cancer, Alzheimer’s and kidney problems — on which he adds colored beads for prayers for those ailments.
Blanco has a sense of satisfaction about how far his rosaries have traveled. Several have been blessed by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Blanco’s daughter said: “We’d loved for him to be able to go and have his rosary blessed by the Pope. That would be a dream.”
Blanco, staring off in the distance, said: “That would be great.”
How long will he continue his mission?
“As long as my hands allow me,” he said.
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