Bonnie Engstrom’s third pregnancy was unlike any of her others. “My husband Travis and I had a really beautiful experience during the pregnancy with God providing for us and taking care of us,” she tells me. “We really felt like we were on the brink on something really special and amazing, even more than with the other babies. We would joke about how I must be pregnant with the future Pope because God was really faithful and generous with us throughout.”
I spoke to Bonnie days before the Vatican announced that its theologians had approved the miracle that occurred in her life, after she sought the intercession of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the charismatic American televangelist who died in 1979.
Fulton Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, close to where Bonnie Engstrom was raised. He was ordained for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, where Bonnie, her husband and five children now live. “I’ve always kind of known who he was because he was a local boy,” she explains when I ask how her devotion to Fulton Sheen developed. “But when I was pregnant with James, I started doing some research into his life and I started watching YouTube videos. So that was how I really started to appreciate who he was. Listening to him preach and seeing how powerful and dynamic he was that was when my devotion to him started to grow.”
Bonnie’s “beautiful” pregnancy, coloured by a deepening devotion to Sheen, was followed by a beautiful labour “covered in prayer”. “James’s pregnancy had been a really healthy and normal pregnancy and we were planning my third home birth with him. The day I went into labour was a pretty normal day so I just kind of did what you do when you’re going to give birth. I have to say it was a really beautiful September evening and it felt really special. I was in active labour at night. I was praying, which was really important, and I knew that I had a bunch of people praying for me. It was a beautiful
labour. It really was.”
It is especially cruel when tragedy strikes within seconds of euphoria. Moments after James’s birth, the abundant joy of the previous nine months abruptly died: Bonnie’s baby was stillborn.
“When James was born the midwife scooped him up and put him in my hands. But I noticed that his legs and arms dangled down. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t crying, he was kind of a blue colour. So I held him for a second and then my midwife took him and she began CPR.”
It was at this point that Bonnie fell into a state shock. Her friend, who was present at the birth, called an ambulance and her husband calmly performed an emergency baptism. At the moment that Travis traced water on his son¹s forehead and baptised him James Fulton, Bonnie’s friend began to pray for the intercession of the newborn¹s namesake.
“At that moment, in my head I couldn’t really think of anything,” Bonnie says. “But in my head I was saying Fulton Sheen’s name over and over again. And that was my way of praying by calling on his name.”
By the time the paramedics arrived there was still no pulse. Bonnie spent the 20-minute journey to the hospital in a separate ambulance from her husband and baby, lying alone, unaware if her son was dead or alive.
When they arrived at the hospital it was Travis’s turn to endure a solitary, harrowing wait. He lingered outside the hospital emergency room while doctors desperately tried to resuscitate his baby.
Five men eventually emerged with tears in their eyes. “They said to him: ‘Your son is alive’ and Travis understood in that moment that what they were really saying was: ‘He’s alive now but just for right now.’ The fact that they were crying meant that he knew that things were really bad.
“But when he came to see me, what he said to me was: ‘James is alive and everything’s going to be OK’, because he just had faith. My husband had faith. It was amazing. And because I was still in a state of shock I naïvely accepted it. My husband just had the faith in that moment.”
The miraculous breath had come after 61 excruciating minutes. James had breathed again at the moment doctors gave up their efforts and stopped to record his time of death.
“They then took me to the neonatal intensive care unit and then I saw how bad he looked. He was covered in wires and he wasn¹t breathing on his own. They had knocked him out. They had intubated him. Yeah, it was really…”
Bonnie’s voice begins to crack and she summons up the composure to complete the sentence: “…it was really sad.”
A small pause follows before she quietly adds: “It’s such a little word but I hope it conveys…” She trails off again. “It was really sad.”
Bonnie starts to explain to me the full extent of the miracle. “The way my doctor explained it to me was: ‘It’s amazing that James came back to life and it¹s a miracle that he is doing as well as he is.¹ Because he should have had massive organ failure and then they expected him to be very severely disabled. Then they thought that he would have very severe cerebral palsy. They thought that he would have to be strapped to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, have a feeding tube and probably be blind. They thought that mentally he would not be aware of anything. It was supposed to be pretty grim and that was if he even lived.”
Bonnie was able to bring her baby home after seven weeks in hospital. “As he continued I think they gave us an increasingly better prognosis. So it went from very severely disabled to: ‘OK, so he’s going to have cerebral palsy. We just don¹t know what it will look like.’ But he continued to get better and seemed more and more like a normal baby… I mean, there was always some big question marks for about the first six to 12 months just because he was a baby, so we had to wait for him to hit his milestones to know how complete the miracle was.
“But my husband, and I and family and friends, were all at home interacting with James when he was two and a half months old, when he was five months old, and were sitting there thinking: ‘This kid is normal. He’s like any of our other babies we¹ve seen at this age. This really is a miracle.'”
Bonnie still prays to Fulton Sheen and he remains a central figure in her family’s life. I asked her what she most admired about him.
“The day he was ordained he made a promise to God that he would keep a holy hour every single day for the rest of his life and he kept that promise,” she says. “So for over 60 years he made a holy hour every single day and that devotion to the Eucharist is really a wonderful example for me. I think it would be a wonderful example to the world, which is why I hope he is a canonised saint.
“He would have to be really creative sometimes and he would find a church in the middle of nowhere to make that holy hour to keep that promise. He was really loyal to Christ and that prayer time meant a lot to him. His example is really beautiful to me.”
Bonnie also tells me that Sheen heroically carried many burdens, but only confided them to very few people who have refused to speak about them since. When St John Paul II visited St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1979 he was surprised to discover Sheen was not concelebrating Mass. When Sheen was invited to come forward, the pope embraced him, telling him: “You are a loyal son of the Church.” Sheen died a few months later.
“He suffered a lot,” Bonnie says. “But he never really talked about his suffering. Only the people closest to him knew about the pain in his body and the pain in his heart, and even they will not talk about it. Fulton Sheen didn¹t want to talk about it, because he didn¹t want to create scandal and feed gossip. That¹s just beautiful.”
“Nowadays if we have a problem with someone we write it on Facebook. But he really bore that internally. So when John Paul II sought him out and embraced him that was a really powerful moment.
“I think it was two months later that he died so it was a really beautiful ending to his life, to have the Holy Father tell him: ‘You are a faithful son of the Church.’ I mean, gosh, I would probably die too if Pope Francis said that to me.”
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