As a young mother, Illinois legate Melissa Villalobos often would take her prayers and daily concerns to the late Cardinal John Henry Newman. So, when she woke up bleeding one morning in 2013 during her seventh pregnancy while her husband, David, was on a plane to Atlanta, she instinctively cried out: “please Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.” What happened next has been certified as the second miracle required for the canonization of Newman, who will be declared a saint October 13.
INTENSE SCENT OF ROSES
Quite simply, Melissa said, “The bleeding suddenly stopped.” When she thanked Newman, she sensed a fragrance of roses so intense that it was unlike the scent of any roses she had smelled previously.
At the time, Melissa had been on bed rest for 15 days. Her placenta had detached from the uterine wall and had a hole in it and a blood clot had formed in the fetal membrane. As a result, she was getting ultrasounds weekly, and was scheduled to have one the day the bleeding stopped. When she told the doctor what had happened, he looked surprised, but the ultrasound showed that her placenta was no longer torn and that the blood clot was gone. As a precaution, she was instructed to rest.
Even so, Melissa felt well enough to ease back into her normal activities with her children, then ages 6, 5, 3, and 1. On Dec. 27, 2013, the feast of St. John the Apostle, Gemma Lillian was born full term at a healthy weight of eight pounds, eight ounces with no medical problems. Had she been a boy, she would have been named John Henry, but that honor went to her younger brother, who was born Sept. 28, 2016. However, Gemma’s middle name comes from a passage in which Newman wrote that after Mary’s Assumption, “instead of her pure and fragrant body, there was a growth of lilies from the earth which she had touched.”
‘CLOSE DAILY COMPANION’ WITH NEWMAN
The seeds for Melissa’s relationship with Newman were planted when she saw Cardinal Newman at 2000, a series about the 19th-century English convert, on EWTN. Her interest was piqued, but it wasn’t until several years later when David came home from an evening of recollection with two holy cards bearing Newman’s image that her relationship with the beatified cardinal deepened. Melissa placed the cards in two locations in the house where they could be seen.
“As I passed the cards,” she said, “I would stop and look at him. I was captivated by his face. He looked like someone who could live today, and I was surprised that he looked so modern in his expression . . . I thought he had a beautiful face and I mean that in a holy way. His face looked so pure, loving, innocent, sweet.” Soon, Melissa was offering Newman prayer requests and sharing her thoughts with him. “We were close companions throughout the entire day.”
At the same time, she became curious about him. An Internet search took her to the website of the National Institute for Newman Studies (newmanreader.org), where she was able to access his writings, including his homilies, diary entries, and letters. Knowing he had written to ordinary people like herself gave her the confidence to continue to pray and talk to him.
HELP THROUGH EARLIER MISCARRIAGE
Before her pregnancy with Gemma in 2013, Melissa had prayed to Newman when she learned a child she was carrying had no heartbeat. “I prayed for strength to keep my faith. I did not doubt my faith, but I didn’t want to and . . . I begged Cardinal Newman that I would survive that ordeal.” Although her life was not at risk, Melissa said she felt as if she could die of a broken heart. “I wanted to survive emotionally and spiritually. I asked if I could keep my faith and I did. I lost the baby and remained a Catholic and I credited Cardinal Newman for that. I had no doubt that God loved me. I had no doubt that I wanted to remain a Catholic.”
After her prayer for the bleeding to stop was answered, Melissa said she wanted to honor Newman and show her gratitude by helping his canonization cause, but she waited to make sure the child would be born healthy. Her doctors had expected another miscarriage or birth of a pre-term baby with medical problems.
INVESTIGATING THE MIRACLE
Following Gemma’s birth, Melissa contacted Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, the postulator for Cardinal Newman’s canonization cause, in Rome, and she and David were able to meet him and his translator in September, 2014, when both happened to be in Chicago. They took Gemma with them along with a file of medical papers and imaging discs. A case was then opened in the Archdiocese of Chicago for preliminary investigation. Several experts were hired to determine if what happened could have been explained by medicine or science. Then, during the summer of 2015, David and Melissa were called to testify before a tribunal that included Dr. Gerald Casey, a retired family medicine specialist.
As Melissa spoke, Dr. Casey said, “I felt as if I was listening to someone whom the hand of God had come down and touched at that moment in time. It was the most enriching religious experience of my life. I started to cry and some of the other people as well started to cry. It was just so moving.”
Dr. Casey, who plans to attend the canonization with his wife and seven family members, said neither he nor the other physicians involved in evaluating Melissa’s case had ever heard of anything like it. “None of us as physicians could give a medical reason why she would go from bleeding rather heavily to saying several words and not only for it to stop immediately, but to never occur again.”
Once David and Melissa appeared before the tribunal, agreeing to keep the matter confidential, a long wait began. “We didn’t know how things were going,” Melissa said. “When we would check in by email with the postulator’s translator, she would say they’re still reviewing this or that.”
In the meantime, their son, John Henry, was born, and on Jan. 3, 2019, Melissa gave birth to their youngest, Blase. When she came home from the hospital with Blase, Melissa said she decided not to look at her phone when she got up in the night to nurse because she didn’t want to read anything that would keep her from going back to sleep. But early on Feb. 13 while nursing, she had a strong prompting to check her phone and learned that the second miracle for Cardinal Newman’s canonization had been approved. “It was like being hit with a thunderbolt.”
Because David and Melissa had been unable to talk about the miracle for so long, no one in their DuPage County Legatus Chapter knew about it. They debated whether to say something at a meeting days before the canonization date was to be announced July 1. “I didn’t know if my name would come out that day and I didn’t want Legates to read it in the paper,” Melissa explained. After praying about it, she requested a few minutes to speak. “Everyone was blown away,” she said, adding she hopes eventually to share more of the story with the DuPage and other Legatus chapters.
David and Melissa Villalobos will attend Cardinal Newman’s October 13 canonization in Rome along with their seven children.
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.