The miracle that will make Archbishop Fulton Sheen ‘blessed’


When Bonnie Engstrom and her husband, Travis, were considering names for their third child in 2010, they said that they’d name a boy James Fulton in honor of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a priest from their Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. His cause for canonization was opened in 2002.

Bishop Sheen in the 1950s and 1960s captured TV and radio audiences with his broadcasts of “Life Is Worth Living.” The couple had been watching them on Youtube.

“We were really taken with listening to him preach,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “He reminds me of St. Paul in that they both had a passionate desire to tell people about the Faith and about Jesus Christ. We believed that he would be a saint one day. So we thought it would be cool to have a son named after a saint.”

Ironically, because of an approved miracle for her son, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) is closer to sainthood.

That step in the journey was announced on July 6 by the Most Rev. Daniel Jenky, bishop of Peoria, who proclaimed with “overwhelming joy” that Pope Francis formally approved the miracle that’s attributed to Sheen’s intercession

That news came just nine days after Venerable Sheen’s remains were transferred to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria. The end of three years of litigation over his remains meant that the cause for sainthood, which had been put on hold, could be resumed.

Fervent intercession

“It’s very exciting and surreal, and it’s very humbling,” Engstrom said about her family’s involvement.

Her son, James Fulton Engstrom, was stillborn on Sept. 16, 2010, his life choked out by a true knot in the umbilical cord. His parents prayed fervently for Sheen’s intercession, and what happened in the next 61 lifeless minutes was the stuff that miracles are made of. When all medical personnel had given up and were about to call the time of death, the stillborn baby came to life.

“Without any medical explanation, his heart started beating normally, and he was breathing normally, and that’s one of the components for a miracle,” said Msgr. James Kruse, the diocesan vicar general of the Diocese of Peoria, who participated in the investigation for the cause.

Engstrom had delivered her two older children at home, but this time something went very wrong. Her husband performed an emergency baptism for their lifeless son, and Bonnie Engstrom began praying to Venerable Sheen.

“I have a distinct memory of calling on him and repeating his name in my head, over and over, and invoking him to pray for us,” she said.

The medics continued trying to resuscitate the baby on their way to the hospital. Engstrom, in shock, was transported in another ambulance.

“They were continually doing blood tests on the baby, and the one doctor said that the toxicity in his blood was really that of a corpse that was one week or so dead,” Msgr. Kruse said, which he learned from the medical records and later interviews with physicians. “They were about to declare him dead.”

James Fulton suddenly showed signs of life.

He was placed in the neonatal intensive care unit, but the crisis wasn’t over. The doctors warned the couple that he could have massive organ failure and die again.

“Some of the details that we learned in the scholarly research on this situation was that the longest that a child had survived without a heartbeat and respiration was 20 minutes,” said Msgr. Jason Gray, whom Bishop Jenky appointed as episcopal delegate into the inquiry. “That’s what was known to medical science and in medical journals. In addition, there are always side effects if you go 10, 15 or 20 minutes without oxygen to the brain.”

Not so for James Fulton. Despite not breathing for more than an hour, he appeared to be a normal baby physically and intellectually and was right on target for typical development.

Church investigation

His maternal grandmother, Alberta Fandel, urged the couple to submit the alleged miracle to the Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria. That investigation started in September 2011 and was completed that December. James Fulton was a year old, and enough time had passed to assess if his body and brain were damaged. They were not.

The Church tribunal found enough information for further investigation and forwarded medical records and witness testimonies to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for consideration of Venerable Sheen’s canonization.

Meanwhile, there was a legal battle over his remains that were interred in St. Patrick Cathedral in New York City. The dispute went to court, and the Archdiocese of New York lost its final appeal. In compliance with Church law, the remains were transferred on June 27 without prior public notice and without ceremony.

Sheen’s niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, and Patricia Gibson, chancellor and attorney for the Diocese of Peoria, quietly gathered at St. Patrick’s with funeral home and cemetery staff. The remains in the basement crypt were disinterred and immediately taken to LaGuardia Airport and flown to Chicago to be transported to Peoria. The remains are encased in a marble monument at the side altar that’s dedicated to Blessed Mother Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Thousands of people already have visited the site.

“After working 18 years with Bishop Jenky in the Cause for Beatification, it was a great privilege and honor to be present and witness the transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s remains to his home cathedral in Peoria where he served Mass as a youth and was ordained,” Gibson said.


Pope Francis will soon announce the date of the beatification that will be held at the cathedral. Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, prefect for the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, will preside.

“I continue to hope and pray that the beatification will take place in this 100-year anniversary of Venerable Sheen’s ordination to the priesthood that took place at the cathedral where he is now entombed,” Bishop Jenky said.

Msgr. Gray called the case “a remarkable story.”

He told OSV: “It makes us think a little differently about life and about what God can do in each of our lives. I think everyone involved was touched by the experience. There’s an important sense of connection that a priest from our diocese is now honored as being venerable and then blessed. That means a lot to the priests and the people of Peoria.”

James Fulton is a typical 8-year-old boy, the third of now eight children who range in age from 3 months to 11 years old. His mother calls his life “our miracle and yours. It is God’s miracle.”

Her book, “61 Minutes to a Miracle,” will soon be released by Our Sunday Visitor.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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