Parish holds up courageous boy

and his family with love

By Christie L. Chicoine

CS&T Staff Writer

BLUE BELL – Call him the little engine that could.

Five-year-old John Shapiro, a kindergartener at St. Helena School in Blue Bell, Montgomery County, wants to be a firefighter when he grows up.

But the blond-haired boy with the dancing blue eyes whose sole goal is to help others is dying.

The parish and school communities have rallied around little John since July 2007, when the then-2-year-old was diagnosed with brain cancer. Subsequently, he underwent four surgeries – three on his brain and one this past April on his spine.

At this juncture, no more surgeries are scheduled for him. He has also undergone numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although he is still receiving chemotherapy, no more radiation treatments are planned.

The school had a big surprise for John Wednesday, Oct. 13. In addition to hosting a superhero day in his honor – the boy’s courageous battle with cancer earned him the title “St. Helena School Superhero” last year as a pre-kindergartener and again this year as a kindergartener – a parent from the home and school association arranged for two Center Square fire trucks to make a brief stop at the school.

John, who was already attired in a firefighter’s costume for the superhero day, was permitted to briefly sit behind the wheel of the truck, blast the siren and ride the boom lift, or cherry picker.

The fire company proclaimed John a “Honorary Center Square Fireman.”

“They highered up the cherry picker and I went spinning,” John said. Accompanying him were his parish pastor, Msgr. Joseph J. Nicolo, and two Center Square firefighters.

John insists he wasn’t scared; instead, he said, he felt as though he was flying.

For his superhero costume, John had to choose between a black or tan firefighter’s uniform. He chose black “because you got a jacket with that one,” he said.

Riding the cherry picker with John – “rising to the skies” – was a graced moment for Msgr. Nicolo. “Just to have been able to see how happy John was with the fire truck and ladder, him getting on it, me being able to go up with him and then being able to see how happy he was to look around and to wave to everybody else was just a wonderful thing.

“At St. Helena’s … when one of us hurts, we all hurt,” added the pastor. “This is our way of reaching out in love to him and to his family.”

John is the fourth of five children of Ron and Nancy Shapiro: Kelsey, 19, is a college student; his three other siblings attend St. Helena School: Andrew, 9, is a fourth-grader; Katie, 8, is in second grade; and 3-year-old Christopher is in pre-kindergarten.

“Just to be in his presence to see his courage and determination – I think he teaches us a lot more than we could ever teach anybody else,” added Msgr. Nicolo.

Summing up the parish’s sentiment toward one of its own, the Shapiro family, the pastor cited the parish motto: “One family, one heart, one faith.”

“We try to put the spiritual and corporal works of mercy into our everyday lives,” he said.

Mercy Sister Cathe Shoulberg, the school principal, compared John’s story to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus: “It’s the whole Paschal Mystery right in front of us,” she said. “There is a blessing in that because we’ve had the opportunity and privilege to see it day in and day out.

“He has taught me more than I’ve ever known in my whole life about how to live life every day,” Sister Cathe said. “He’s just an amazing little kid, with his unbelievable hardship, but he doesn’t dwell in that. He’s always looking for what he can do and who he can help. He just is so giving and so loving. He certainly has touched my very core in a way that I don’t know that anyone else ever has.

“John is just an incredible little boy who has such a zest for life and a spirit of joy about him. You forget that he’s sick because he’s just so alive.

“John lives every moment to the fullest,” Sister Cathe said. “What it has taught me is how every moment we have is a graced moment. None of us knows what will happen in the next second. Life is fragile and precious. Enjoy what you can while you can because you just never know.”

At least through Halloween, John plans to retire his firefighter’s costume. As of this week, he planned to dress up as an Easter Bunny for the children’s holiday. As far as tricks-or-treats go, John’s favorite candies are Kit Kat candy bars, plain M & M’s and York Peppermint Patties.

In addition to being an arts-and-crafts aficionado – he loves to trace his numerous get-well cards – John also likes to read children’s books and play with stickers, trucks, trains and, of course, toy fire engines.

Correspondence may be sent to the youngster through the school: St. Helena School, 1499 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or