James Fulton Engstrom was born with a tightly tied true knot in his umbilical cord. He was blue and lifeless with no pulse. Doctors struggled to revive him for 61 minutes. During that awful hour, his mother, Bonnie Engstrom, silently repeated, “Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen,” begging her favorite archbishop to intercede for her son.
Then the baby began to breathe.
Now Fulton Sheen is up for canonization, and no one is following his cause more closely than Engstrom, who believes Sheen’s intercession miraculously brought her baby back to life. A panel of seven medical experts who advise the Congregation of the Causes of Saints at the Vatican agrees. In early March, they unanimously declared they could find no natural cause for the boy’s revival and healing.
Not everyone was as sure as Engstrom that a miracle had occurred. Even after Baby James began to breathe again, NICU doctors didn't think he would live.
“They expected major organ failure,” Engstrom said. They warned Engstrom that every day could be her baby’s last.
“Once we got to three weeks, the doctors were definitely impressed,” she said, but they still thought severe brain damage was inevitable.
“Every mother in the NICU is praying for a miracle,” Engstrom said. The word “miracle” often comes up when a desperately ill baby survives, she says, but when James continued to thrive beyond all expectations, Engstrom knew something different was going on.
So she asked the doctors, “When you say that word ‘miracle,’ do you mean it?” Even the non-Catholic doctors agreed: James’ story was different.
Three years later, James Fulton Engstrom is an active, healthy boy who thinks he can escape any trouble because of his twinkling eyes and beaming grin. He shows no sign of brain damage, and he energetically holds his own among six little Engstrom children.
James’ older sister, Lydia, brought cookies to her kindergarten class in honor of Fulton Sheen, matter-of-factly explaining to her classmates that Sheen is the man who brought her dead brother back to life.
“It’s funny,” said Engstrom. “Something that is so extraordinary is so normal in our home.”
During the tribunal to examine what is still only an alleged miracle, the panel of experts reviewed all of James’ medical records; they interviewed witnesses, including medical personnel who cared for James, and then other doctors examined the child for the tribunal. They combed over every detail of his recovery to seek any natural reason for this boy to be alive and healthy instead of dying or dead. The process was long and arduous — and expensive. The family waited and prayed, praising God that their son was alive and well, bracing themselves to hear that his recovery might be explained away.
“There was always this little glimmer of possible disappointment,” Engstrom said. “But what I really felt bad about was that it cost a lot of money. You’re paying a lot of people to get this done! You make thousands of copies, you have to translate everything into Italian.”
Engstrom laughs at the strange combination of spiritual and earthly concerns the family has endured.
“More than anything,” she said, “I was praying, ‘Oh, Jesus, if they wasted thousands of dollars on something that isn’t a miracle, I’m gonna feel so bad!’”
Engstrom had the name James Fulton picked out long before any alleged miracles occurred — but she has not always been Sheen’s greatest fan. She laughs again when she remembers her first reaction to the possible future saint.
“The first time I saw him on EWTN, I asked my mom, ‘Who is that guy? He looks like a vampire.’” She said. “I’m glad he and Jesus thought we were a good fit anyway.”
Engstrom began to be drawn to Sheen when she discovered he was from the same part of the country as she was.
“I actually thought at first, ‘How can there be anything special about him? He’s from El Paso (Ill.)!’ But the more I listened and read, the more I was impressed that there is this guy with a background as humble as mine, but he loved Jesus Christ. I could do something greater for God, just like Fulton Sheen did.”Now that the Vatican’s medical panel has declared the alleged miracle has no natural cause, the case moves on to a panel of theologians, then to a team of bishops and then to Pope Francis.
“There’s still more to do,” says Engstrom, who adds that prayers and financial contributions will be gratefully accepted. Engstrom blogs at www.aknottedlife.com and the official page for the cause is www.archbishopsheencause.org.
Simcha Fisher is a Catholic blogger, speaker and freelance writer. She is the author of “A Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning” (OSV, $9.95).