Family seeks Fulton Sheen’s intercession for newborn son’s healing

| March 29, 2018 | 0 Comments

Jeff and Katherine Dobbs sit with their newborn son, Fulton, at their home after being released from the hospital in early March. Fulton was born Christmas Eve with an immunodeficiency that remains undiagnosed. Courtesy Katherine Dobbs

Even before Katherine and Jeff Dobbs were married, they had a name picked out for a future son: Fulton Francis. Fulton, for Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the mid-20th century priest known for his broadcast evangelism; and Francis, for Pope Francis, whom the couple later met at a general audience during their honeymoon in 2017.

U.S. Archbishop Fulton Sheen is pictured preaching in an undated photo. CNS

Little could they have known the significance of their baby’s namesakes less than a year later. Fulton Francis Dobbs was born last Christmas Eve with an immunodeficiency that remains undiagnosed. They’ve been praying for Fulton’s healing through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen, whom Pope Benedict XVI declared venerable in 2012, meaning the Catholic Church considers him to have lived “heroic virtue” and worthy of imitation. The next step in the sainthood process is beatification, which requires one miracle through that person’s intercession.

After Fulton’s birth, the Dobbs’ parish, St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, distributed cards with a prayer by Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal who was ordained a priest by Archbishop Sheen and has worked on his cause for canonization.

Katherine’s father, Steve Burrill, also a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo, has been leading the prayer charge not only for his grandson, but also for his daughter and son-in-law.

“Your faith needs to get you through the ‘whys’ — not the ‘why me?’, but the ‘why us?’” said Burrill, 61. “I think it would be strange not to have that. But it’s faith that helps you figure that out, or at least try to work through it. I can’t think of two people who were more ready to be parents … than these two.”

‘A little hermitage’

Katherine’s 30-week ultrasound revealed that Fulton wasn’t growing at a normal rate, and doctors determined he had an intrauterine growth restriction, but didn’t know the cause. Katherine’s doctor ordered her to go on bed rest, and going forward, she had two ultrasounds a week. At 37 weeks gestation, doctors decided to induce labor, and Fulton was born Dec. 24, 2017, at 3 lbs., 13 oz. and 17-and-a-half inches.

From the start, Fulton wasn’t eating well, and his oxygen levels were dropping, so Katherine, 32, and Jeff, 30, had him baptized at the hospital. After about a week, doctors performed genetic tests at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, and Fulton was placed in isolation. Meanwhile, his newborn screening tests indicated that he had severe combined immunodeficiency, involving a disorder that leaves little or no immune response. Commonly known as “bubble boy disease,” the condition leaves those who have it highly susceptible to severe infections. But more tests ruled out SCID, which could have been treated with a bone marrow transplant.

Katherine Dobbs holds her son, Fulton, Feb. 15 at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis. It was the first time she got to touch his skin in more than a month. Courtesy Katherine Dobbs

“We are relieved to find out he didn’t have SCID, but we still don’t know why his lymphocytes are low,” said Katherine, referring to Fulton’s white blood cells. “So, we’re navigating all sorts of things.”

Thus far, every genetic test has come back inconclusive, and they’re awaiting the results of another.

While Fulton’s March 2 homecoming has been joyous, it brings a new set of challenges. The Dobbses have few visitors, and when they do, guests must wear masks and gloves; Fulton cannot be around children. The couple only has to wear protective gear at home if they exhibit symptoms of an illness. They can’t take him out in public.

“The Lord is inviting me into a little hermitage right now — not going out, not inviting people over,” said Katherine, a former teacher at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in New Brighton.

Katherine and Jeff were recently trained to administer infusions in Fulton’s legs every other week, giving him antibody protection. Fulton also has central apnea, which he’s able to resolve on his own, Katherine noted.

She admitted that at first, she was even afraid to cry, fearing her tears could kill Fulton because of the germs they contained.

“So, just to think about even more than just one hour at a time was so anxiety-provoking,” she said. “I read all these books on childbirth and nothing has been able to basically be applied to this situation in life. I feel like the Lord is saying, ‘My ways are not your ways,’ and … not to plan the next moment because it’s impossible to plan the next moment. So, just to trust that [God is] going to provide, and receive the graces of the moment.”

The couple’s anniversary Feb. 25 was one of the first times they left the hospital; they celebrated by attending Mass at St. Stephen in Minneapolis.

“We were both just really in love with the Mass and being able to enter into it,” Katherine said, adding that they wore masks, and after Mass, asked the priest to offer them Communion, which he did.

“Just to be able to receive the Eucharist on our anniversary was really, really beautiful,” she said, noting Archbishop Sheen’s love of the Eucharist as well.

Mutual devotion

Katherine’s love of St. Therese of Lisieux inspired her and Jeff to read Archbishop Sheen’s book, “St. Therese: A Treasured Love Story,” which includes text from talks he gave in 1973 about the French nun and her universal appeal. While on bed rest for the last weeks of her pregnancy, Katherine researched Archbishop Sheen and listened to his “Life is Worth Living” on CD. It was derived from his television show of the same name that aired in the 1950s and, at its peak, had 10 million weekly viewers. Eventually, her research led her to an Illinois woman who shares not only her esteem for Archbishop Sheen, but also, at one point, prayers for a baby’s miraculous healing.

Katherine connected with Bonnie Engstrom, who, at St. Charles Borromeo March 23, shared the account of the alleged miraculous healing of her newborn son, James Fulton, in 2010 through Archbishop Sheen’s intercession.

“And wouldn’t it be amazing if we had Fulton’s miracle,” Engstrom told attendees.

Engstrom, 36, grew up 20 miles away from Archbishop Sheen’s birthplace of El Paso, Illinois. While she was familiar with the prelate for that reason alone, she started to watch YouTube videos of him during her pregnancy with James.

The home birth of Engstrom’s third child started well, but elation turned to devastation when he was stillborn. A friend who was there to pray and take pictures later described a “mystical experience” after James’ birth.

“She was just flooded with images of Fulton Sheen and felt his presence,” Engstrom recalled.

Their friend, a former nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, then called 911. She later told Engstrom and her husband, Travis, that the only time she had seen a baby like James was when she carried one to the morgue.

At the ER, James continued to lie cold and motionless while doctors and nurses worked to revive him. But as the doctors began putting their hands up to call his time of death, “after 61 minutes of not having a heartbeat, James’ heart started to beat again, and it never stopped again,” Bonnie said.

Despite the surprise recovery, doctors were quick to caution that no one goes without a heartbeat for an hour and lives; they just didn’t know when James would die. Although Travis performed an emergency baptism while waiting for the ambulance, their pastor and a hospital chaplain came to baptize and confirm James.

“God bless our priests,” Bonnie said, “that in these moments when Travis and I felt completely hopeless — there was nothing we could do to parent our child, we couldn’t even touch him, we couldn’t even hold him — there was nothing we could do. And so the Church, through these priests, says, ‘We’re going to give him every grace needed so that he can die a holy death.’ And I knew that’s what they were saying because in the Roman Catholic rite, babies do not get confirmed.”

Medical staff also feared they’d have to amputate one of James’ legs that became “dead” from a chemical burn when epinephrine leaked out in the ambulance in an effort to restart his heart.

Even as James began to improve, doctors held to their grim prognosis; they thought he’d be blind, have to be fed through a tube, have the intelligence of an infant and likely have cerebral palsy.

From one affliction to another, Bonnie said she felt like God was taking her baby away from her bit by bit when she thought about everything he’d never be able to do.

“This was not the gift that I wanted,” she said. But then she remembered what she knew about God — that he’s “faithful and generous.”

“I wanted to live in the light; I did not want to live in the darkness,” she said. “And so I chose to hope. And I chose to thank God for his generosity and thank God for his faithfulness and thank God for the way he provided for us all during James’ pregnancy and to trust that that was not over, [and] that God was not finished.”

James’ leg began healing the next day. And at 6 days old, he began breathing on his own.

The Engstroms brought James home after seven weeks in the NICU. Once his feeding tube was removed, he began to meet milestones. And although an earlier MRI had shown brain damage, a follow-up MRI showed a “perfectly healthy brain.”

Through it all, the Engstroms believe Archbishop Sheen was there in prayers from family members and friends for James’ full recovery through the prelate’s intercession. Believing that God miraculously healed James, Bonnie’s mother encouraged her to notify the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation in Peoria, Illinois.

In the Diocese of Peoria — which is promoting Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause — a tribunal was opened to investigate James’ case.

The Foundation submitted James’ alleged miracle to the Vatican a day after Pope Benedict XVI declared Archbishop Sheen venerable in 2012. In March 2014, a medical advisory board unanimously approved James’ case as a medical miracle that had no scientific or medical explanation. A few months later, a team of theologians who advise the Congregation for the Causes of Saints also unanimously approved the alleged miracle through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. However, the case is on hold because of a conflict with the Archdiocese of New York, where Archbishop Sheen’s body is buried.

Regardless, Bonnie, who blogs at, points to a higher purpose.

“All of this — me standing here right now, Fulton Sheen’s sainthood, James’ miracle, hopefully the miracle that Fulton Dobbs will get — all of this is for the honor and glory of God. It has nothing, really, to do with me or our babies or Fulton Sheen; it’s all about Jesus Christ and him being praised.”

The Engstroms have seven children, and James is now 7 years old.

Katherine attended Bonnie’s presentation, which was followed by Stations of the Cross and eucharistic adoration.

She and her family continue to trust in the power of prayer, “that God is in the details, and he’s a good father,” she said.

“I think it’s really beautiful that my dad is now the one that’s out there asking people to pray for Fulton when he almost lost his life six years ago and really, through prayer, made it,” she said, explaining how he experienced septic shock. “Now, he’s the one asking for the same favor for his grandson.”

Burrill helped organize the event for his grandson and is spearheading an application for the undiagnosed disease network at the National Institutes of Health — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ medical research agency — in hopes it will accept Fulton’s case for further study.

Father Troy Przybilla, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, said praying for a miracle through intercession is important because it expresses the Catholic faith.

“Jesus healed people who asked to be cured,” he noted, [and] “when they were healed, he would often say, ‘Your faith has saved you.’ Jesus told his apostles that they would do mightier works than these. This seems hard to believe, but when you read the Acts of the Apostles or the lives of the saints, you learn of many miracles that have come through the intercession of saints.”

“I feel like it’s a long road of healing ahead,” Katherine said, “but the Lord has given [to] me in prayer before, just that he’s always been there. And so, I know he has been in this, too.”

Archbishop Fulton Sheen: Emmy-winning prelate and potential saint

Archbishop Fulton Sheen was born Peter John Sheen May 8, 1885, in El Paso, Illinois. He later moved with his family to Peoria, Illinois, so that he and his brothers could attend St. Mary Cathedral Grade School and Spalding Institute. He was ordained to the priesthood there on Sept. 20, 1919. Before that, he had studied at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul.

After brief priestly ministry in Peoria, he served on the faculty of The Catholic University of America in Washington for nearly 30 years.

He began his broadcast career in radio in 1930. In 1952, his famous television show “Life is Worth Living” began airing and quickly gained a large audience with many non-Catholics becoming regular viewers. For the show, he won an Emmy for outstanding television personality.

He was national director of the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966. A former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, he was bishop of Rochester, New York, from 1966 to 1969 and was given the personal title of archbishop when he retired from that diocesan post. He is the author of dozens of books, including his autobiography: “Treasure in Clay.”

He died in New York Dec. 9, 1979.

In 2012, 10 years after his canonization cause was officially opened by the Diocese of Peoria, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints had recognized Archbishop Sheen’s life as one of “heroic virtue,” and proclaimed him “Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.”

The first approved miracle necessary for his beatification has cleared two of the three stages necessary for Archbishop Sheen to be declared “blessed.”

In September 2015, his cause was suspended indefinitely, when the Archdiocese of New York denied a request from Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, president of the Archbishop Sheen Foundation, to move the archbishop’s body to Peoria.

 — Catholic News Service

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