Bonnie Engstrom remembers praying silently to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen over and over again after her baby son was born lifeless and without a pulse for 61 minutes.
“I held him for a moment, he was blue and limp,” she told CNA. “I just kind of sat there in shock.”
Little James Fulton was the third child that Bonnie and her husband planned to give birth to at home, and everything had been going perfectly in the early hours of Sept. 16, 2010.
“It had been a healthy pregnancy, it was a healthy labor, everything was good,” Bonnie recalled.
But what the couple and attending midwife and birth assistant did not know was that there was a knot in James' umbilical chord which tightened while he was descending the birth canal.
Her son, 9 lbs. 12 oz., was a stillborn.
Bonnie held her motionless baby for a few brief moments before he was quickly taken away for CPR while an ambulance was called.
“I have a memory of repeating Sheen's name, in my head, not out loud, but just kind of saying over and over again 'Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen' while they were still doing CPR,” she said.
Bonnie's husband also baptized the baby James Fulton—“the name we had agreed upon”—before he was rushed to the St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria. During the transport to the hospital, a friend who had attended the birth called others to pray, with some of them invoking Sheen's name as well.
“The intercession for my son with Archbishop Sheen began when I was still pregnant with him,” she explained. “We knew that we were going to name him after Fulton Sheen and so I was praying to him and asking him to watch out for my son to be his kind of patron.”
In the ambulance, paramedics gave the baby two doses of epinephrine to try to restart his heart, “and neither one of those worked,” Bonnie said.
But at the hospital, a full 61 minutes after he was born and while doctors were preparing to declare the time of death, James Fulton suddenly had a pulse.
Although the medical team was stunned, they refrained from being optimistic and simply told Bonnie's husband that the baby had a heartbeat, but that was all they could say.
“My husband interpreted that as 'he's alive, but just for now,'” Bonnie recalled.
Doctors expected James Fulton to die within the week, or at the very least, be on a ventilator or feeding tube—blind and strapped into a wheelchair—for the rest of his short life.
What happened in the following days, however, was nothing short of extraordinary.
“Two days after he was born, we had a Mass and a Holy Hour at the cathedral where Sheen was ordained, and we prayed the intercessory prayer asking for Sheen's prayers that James would be completely healed,” Bonnie said.
The Engstrom family was surprised to be surrounded by over a hundred people gathered together with them at Mass that day.
“People I didn't even know—friends of friends, or they saw it on Facebook and they came.”
Over the next few days, friends and strangers alike held Holy Hours at Newman centers and parishes across the U.S. Multiple Protestant churches also participated in prayer chains.
“There were people from all over the world who e-mailed me and left comments on my blog saying 'we're praying for your son and we are asking for Sheen's intercession,'” Bonnie said. “It was really powerful and humbling.”
Within a week of his birth, doctors were shocked to find that James Fulton was breathing on his own.
“Everyone was just amazed by that—that wasn't supposed to happen.”
And day by day, after all of his vital organs were seen to be functioning properly, it became more apparent that little James Fulton was going to be just fine.
“Definitely by the time we were discharged,” and when the baby was seven weeks old, “the doctors and nurses were already pretty impressed with how far he had come,” she said.
When the follow-up MRI came in three months later in December 2010, the medical team was extremely pleased by what they saw.
James Fulton, a normal, happy little boy, celebrated his first birthday on September 16, 2011.
The Engstrom's were recently sworn into a tribunal of inquiry where members of Bishop Sheen's cause for beatification and canonization will investigate the alleged healing.
At a Sept. 7 ceremony at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel in Peoria, the family was joined by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, Dr. Andrea Ambrosi—postulator for Archbishop Sheen’s cause—and members of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation board.
“Because my family believes that James was healed in part because of the intercession of Sheen, there is now an investigation into whether or not this is a real miracle,” Bonnie said. “We don't know what's going to happen, but they are investigating for the beatification.”
Archbishop Sheen died in 1979 and his cause for sainthood was officially opened in 2002. He is presently referred to as a “Servant of God.” The next major step toward being declared a saint would be his beatification by the Pope.
Investigators are also evaluating the case of a 72-year-old Illinois woman who recovered from major complications during lung surgery after her husband prayed for the late archbishop's intercession.