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The power of prayer and love

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Mary Centenera grew up in a loving family in the Philippines where her bedridden mother would read stories from the bible and about the saints to her children.

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“My mum taught us how to pray and how powerful prayer is,” Mary said of her mother Salvacion who suffered from severe asthma.

Her father Crisanto Castro, was the lone survivor of a plane crash in December 1946 in the Philippines. He was thrown out of the plane when it crashed and burst into flames.

At the time, Mary’s mother was pregnant with her eighth child. As Crisanto lay in hospital, Salvacion told friends and family that he was not going to die because he was a devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He recovered and the couple had seven more children.

More than seven decades later, 69-year-old Mary has the same strength of faith and continues to put her trust in God. That includes what the future holds for her 37-year-old son, Joseph, who has autism and an intellectual disability.

Mary and her husband Javier emigrated to Australia 38 years ago with their two children Tito, 5, and Joan, 3. While living with Javier’s parents in Sydney, the couple began looking for work. As immigrants in a new country, their main goal was to find a job and be independent. So when Mary learned she was pregnant, it was difficult to be excited but she drew on her experience of growing up in a large family and told herself the family would manage.

Her mother’s determination to teach her children to pray would come to have an influence at many times in Mary’s life as living with a non-verbal child with autism constantly threw up new challenges including learning he was epileptic after suffering a seizure at the age of 14.

Around the same time Mary, after working for more than 15 years, had to quit her job because of a back problem. The older children, now in their 20s, were working full time and remained in Sydney after Javier and Mary sold their house. In 2000 they moved to Adelaide where Javier’s family was involved in the poultry industry.

The couple was able to buy a small chicken farm which proved to be a positive move for Joseph’s personal development.

“Javier was able to teach Joseph the basic work skills that working on the farm could offer,” Mary said.

“Hard work and plenty of challenges, but watching Javier and Joseph working together was very inspiring.”

Mary decided to share her family’s story to raise awareness of autism and in 2004 she self-published Hunno Pappy. The book is dedicated to Javier and ‘our special angel, Joseph’, who would say Hunno (hello) Pappy when he spoke to his dad on the phone.

Mary’s first attempt at writing was a proud achievement, particularly considering a year earlier she had lost the sight in her right eye due to unexplained nerve damage. Mary became an active member of Autism South Australia and her book was a tool for her to reach out to parents, teachers and carers.

One of the questions asked of her at talks she gave to parents was about her plans for Joseph’s future.

To this she would reply: “If we as parents can teach Joseph how to love us back, if we as parents can teach Joseph to reach his potential and discover the talents that God has given him, and if we can let him see and feel that life on earth is beautiful even for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, then I can say, yes this is our plan. And with God’s help we will be alright.”

This trust was put to the test in 2010 when Mary felt a lump in her breast.

As the biopsy was being taken, her first thought was of Joseph and she pleaded with God: “You gave him to us – who is going to take care of him?”

Mary said the reply she heard was “he will be taken care of” and she immediately felt a sense of peace and serenity come over her.

The lump proved to be small but malignant and was removed. After complications from the surgery she learned on a follow up visit to the doctor that the cancer was still there and she underwent a mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy.

Her low immune system resulted in a serious bout of shingles which took months to recover from. Two years later her right eye was bulging and an MRI revealed she had a benign tumour which couldn’t be removed but required radiotherapy to shrink it.

None of these significant setbacks caused her to lose hope or trust in God. Rather, her health problems prompted her to write a second book called When the Carer Needs Caring as a way of showing other parents of children with disabilities the importance of never giving up and having faith.

Both books have recently been reprinted. Mary is about to write a third book, a continuation of the family’s life now that, as Joseph’s carers, she and Javier are not as young and strong anymore.

As the chicken farm has expanded, Joseph has spent less time in the sheds with his dad and is currently enrolled in a post-school program at Munno Para. But Mary said she is grateful for the open space of the farm where Joseph can “shout happily and make his noise like other people with autism do without disturbing the neighbours”.

She also enjoys her afternoon walks with Joseph around the house, weather permitting.

Mary and Javier are aware of the need to find somewhere for their son to live when they are no longer capable of caring for him.

She followed closely the story of William Callaghan, the young boy with autism who became lost in Victoria recently, and prayed for him. “It was a miracle he survived,” she said.

“I believe in miracles. God walks alongside us if we only ask and put our unconditional trust in Him. I was able to write the books with God’s help. I have to share this trust in God.”

The majority of Mary’s large family are living overseas, but Mary said the few times they get together for special occasions were “precious” and she and her siblings were “one in spirit when we pray”.

Anyone wanting a copy of either of Mary’s books, which are free, can contact her on 0421 310 769 or hannopappy@gmail.com.

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