James Fulton Engstrom and his family were among more than 1,200 people attending the Mass of Thanksgiving in September at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Ill., which celebrated that in June, the Church declared Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen “venerable.” 

miracle baby
James Fulton Engstrom, far right, poses with siblings Bennet, Lydia and Teresa (baby). Photo courtesy of Bonnie Engstrom

James, 2, is too young to understand that his life — and his near death at birth — may play a role in advancing the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization. 

“I believe that Jesus Christ healed my son, but that Fulton Sheen’s prayers were an integral part of that happening,” his mother, Bonnie Engstrom, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

The alleged miracle of Sheen’s intervention in James’ life was investigated by a tribunal in the Diocese of Peoria. The sealed documentation was sent to Rome last December for consideration by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes and could become the miracle needed for Archbishop Sheen’s beatification. 

Engstrom, 31, never expected her family to become involved in the cause and did not approach the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria until James was nearly six months old. 

“My friends and family told me that it’s a fantastic story and it glorifies God,” she told OSV in a phone interview from her home in Goodfield, Ill.

Sixty-one minutes

Who Was Archbishop Sheen?
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was born Peter John Sheen on May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Ill., and grew up in Peoria, Ill., where he was ordained in the diocese in 1919. He served in teaching positions and parish assignments, was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York in 1951, bishop of Rochester in 1966 and archbishop of the titular see of Newport, Wales, in 1969. Archbishop Sheen also was national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. 
 
Sheen was a prolific writer and speaker and was famously known for hosting the evening radio program “The Catholic Hour” (1930-1950) , then “Life Is Worth Living” on television (1951-1957) and “The Fulton Sheen Program” (1961-1968). He was considered the first televangelist. At its peak, his program drew 30 million viewers and generated 8,500 fan letters a week — even while competing in time slots against entertainment giants Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. Berle joked that Sheen used “old materials,” but conceded that if he was going to beaten off the top by anyone, “It’s better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”
 
Sheen preached in front of live audiences without cue cards or script, often using a chalkboard that he joked was erased by an angel. When he won an Emmy Award in 1952, he acknowledged his writers as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
 
One of his most famous broadcasts was in February 1953 when he denounced the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin and said, “Stalin must one day meet his judgment.” The dictator suffered a stroke on March 1 and died four days later.
 
Sheen died of heart disease on Dec. 9, 1979, and is buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. His books continue to sell and his programs are rebroadcast on EWTN, Trinity Broadcasting Network and Relevant Radio.
 
The cause for his canonization was opened in 2002, designating him as Servant of God. In 2008, his archives were sealed in the Diocese of Peoria, which is sponsoring his canonization and which ended their phase of the investigation in 2009.
 

Engstrom, who has a background in English literature, and her husband, Travis, 30, a physics teacher, had their first two children (Lydia, 4, and Bennet, 3) delivered at home and planned the same for their third. (Their fourth child, Teresa, was born in a hospital in May.) 

But something went wrong with James’ birth. There was a knot in the umbilical cord and the baby, weighing 9 pounds 12 ounces, was stillborn. He was blue and limp when the midwife placed him briefly in his mother’s arms then took him back to start CPR. There was no pulse or breathing, and while they waited for an ambulance, Travis took water and baptized his son James Fulton. 

They had already chosen that name because of their love for Sheen’s life and teachings. Engstrom had grown up near Sheen’s birth place in El Paso, Ill., they live not far from the foundation, and Engstrom, while pregnant, had watched videos of Sheen’s TV programs. 

She remembers sitting on the floor after the delivery, thinking over and over, “Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen.” In her despair, it was as close as she could come to a prayer. 

The paramedics rushed James to the hospital and tried to start his heart on the way. They administered two doses of epinephrine through lines inserted in his shin bone, and one leaked and turned his entire leg purple. The doctors and nurses in the emergency room worked on him for another 18 minutes, and one told Engstrom that she wanted James to live long enough for her to hold him and say goodbye. 

He was intubated with oxygen and doctors compressed his chest, but a sonogram showed that his heart was only fluttering. Sixty-one minutes after James was stillborn, a neonatologist declared that they stop working on him and call the time of death. They stopped and, Engstrom said, “Then his heart started.” 

He was admitted to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit where they lowered his body temperature to lessen further damage to his brain and other organs. He was sedated, shivering and covered with wires and tubes. 

The doctors did not expect him to live beyond a week, Engstrom said. They cautioned that if he did, he would likely lose his leg and could spend his life strapped in a wheel chair, blind, severely cognitively impaired, with a ventilator keeping him breathing and a feeding tube nourishing him.

Transformative love

All they had left was prayer and their trust in God, and they asked people to pray with them. Two days after James’ birth, 100 people, some strangers, came to be part of a special Holy Hour and liturgy at the cathedral where Archbishop Sheen had been ordained and served Mass. They prayed for his intercession. 

Fulton Sheen
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen preaching. CNS file photo

James Fulton recovered and is now a healthy 2-year-old. 

“He has a speech delay, but he meets all the standards for his growth and fine motor skills, his receptive language is spot on and he uses sign language,” Engstrom said. 

On Sept. 7, 2011, a diocesan tribunal was sworn in to investigate James’ alleged miraculous healing. Among others, there was Bishop Daniel R. Jenky; Dr. Andrea Ambrosi (postulator for his cause) and Dr. Louis Varela, medical expert for the Sheen tribunal.  

The Engstroms were interviewed. “They wanted to establish that we had a devotion to Fulton Sheen and that it was his intercession, no other saints, that we called on,” Engstrom said. 

In his homily at the Mass of celebration, Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Sheen Foundation, noted that there was great interest in the “amazing, incredible stories” about miracles attributed to Sheen, including the alleged miracle of James Fulton Engstrom. But, he pointed out, he preferred to talk about the “miracle of transformative love” in the life of Sheen and in all who love Jesus Christ. 

“Fulton Sheen could roar like a lion from the pulpit because he listened to the small, still voice of the merciful and just king of the universe,” Msgr. Deptula said. “He really loved Jesus. And he knew that Jesus loved him. And he wanted to share that love with the world. This is what we celebrate today. This is what the world needs.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.