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Gift of a miracle – from a saintly friend

As a young mother who sometimes felt stuck in the house, 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.”

MIRACLE ‘GREENLIGHTED’

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. 

Crash test

Tom Wallace was flying in a plane over Alaska last summer when it crashed into a mountain, without any warning. “The first thing I remember thinking was, ‘What happened?’” said Wallace, who was one of 10 passengers flying in a small float plane, on their way home from an Alaskan fishing trip on the morning of July 10, 2018.

“People didn’t know exactly what happened at first,” said Wallace, 76, also president of Legatus’ Ventura/North Los Angeles Chapter.

A routine flight became a harrowing experience for Wallace, his 42-year-old son Michael, and all the other passengers who huddled under the small plane’s wings in the cold and rain for nearly three hours until the Coast Guard discovered them.

“I have the utmost respect for the Coast Guard and their rescue capabilities,” said Wallace, a former Army helicopter pilot who flew combat missions in Vietnam and was shot down several times.

A former Navy Seal rappelled from the helicopter and helped all 11 survivors, including the pilot, get lifted up into the chopper, which was hovering about 100 feet overhead. The rescuer later told Wallace that his crew usually doesn’t find people alive after the kind of crash they survived.

“He called it ‘the miracle on the mountain,’” Wallace said.

Just an ordinary trip, until…

As they have done for 10 years, Wallace and his son, both of whom live in California, went on a fishing trip to Alaska.

Last July, they spent three days fishing at a small resort on Noyes Island, located in Alaska’s inland waterways. They enjoyed three days fishing with several other people, and had breakfast and dinner together.

The weather had been good during those three days. But on the morning of July 10, they were scheduled to leave the resort by taking a float plane to Ketchikan, where they would then catch a commercial flight home.

That morning, a heavy rainstorm came in that delayed their plane. Still, three other float planes picked up passengers from the fishing resort without any problems. Wallace, his son, five other men and three women boarded their plane when it arrived.

The pilot took the normal route to Ketchikan, but ran into bad weather that dropped visibility from several miles to virtually nothing. The pilot turned around to find another way around the problem area, but ran into more bad weather.

A report from the National Transportation Safety Board later said that the bad weather and poor visibility caused the pilot to become disoriented.

“In the back of my mind, I figured, ‘Well, it’s pretty safe being on a float plane. If something goes wrong, you just land on the water, and there’s plenty of water around,” said Michael Wallace, who works in the development office at Santa Clara University.

Michael, who was sitting a few rows ahead of his father, did not notice that anything was wrong at first when the pilot began an emergency climb. The pilot took a hard right turn, almost stalling the plane and losing momentum just before it collided into the mountainside.

… the mountain meeting

“It was like a rock falling from a high building. It was a solid impact,” said Tom Wallace, who suddenly found himself on top of the passenger across the aisle.

“There was really no warning that we were going to crash,” he said. “The pilot didn’t say, ‘Brace yourselves, we’re in a bad situation.’ The first thing you knew was the crash.”

Moments after, disoriented passengers found themselves on top of each other.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’ Michael said. “And then there was the realization that, ‘We just crashed.’”

“Then you kind of scan your body. You say, ‘All right, my head’s okay, my shoulders, my arms, my legs,’” Michael said. “I look down on my feet, and my right foot, my shoe was sliced off. My right foot had a fair amount of blood on it. It looked pretty gnarly when I looked at it.”

With the endorphins likely kicking into emergency mode, Michael said he did not immediately feel any pain. He found his right shoe, slid his bloody foot into it and made his way out of the plane through the co-pilot’s door.

Meanwhile, Tom Wallace noticed a toxic odor of gasoline making its way through the plane’s cabin. The crash had pushed the plane’s pontoons up to the cabin, blocking the rear doors. The passengers had to leave through the pilots’ doors at the front.

It took about 30 minutes to get everyone out. Tom Wallace was the last passenger off the plane.

Huddling in cold rain

Outside, the passengers huddled under the wings as the pilot used a rope to secure the plane from sliding off the mountain. The survivors used the plane’s emergency supply of thermal blankets to keep themselves warm in the cold and rain.

“I didn’t want the wedding to be turned into a funeral,” he said.

Some of the passengers, some of whom were already showing signs of hypothermia, were concerned about how long they would be exposed to the elements. Some of them prayed to be rescued.

Fog blinded rescuers

Almost three hours after they crashed, the first rescue helicopters flew over the site, but the heavy fog and clouds made visibility virtually zero. Even though the passengers on the ground could hear the helicopter overhead, they never saw it.

“We could hear it come in and we could hear it leave,” Michael said. “That was heartbreaking.”

A short time later, the silhouette of a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter slowly emerged through the clouds. The crew lowered a large basket to lift each survivor into the helicopter, which was quickly packed to capacity, so much so that the former Navy Seal strapped the last survivor — the pilot — to himself and left the basket behind.

“We were basically sitting on top of each other,” said Michael, who suffered broken bones in both feet. He was in a wheelchair and crutches for ten weeks. He is walking, regaining his strength, and hopes to get back to competitive running by mid-January.

“It’s hard to even fathom that I’ve gone through that experience,” said Michael, who is married and is a father to two young boys.

Several other passengers were treated for back injuries. Tom Wallace had bruising on his chest, a strained neck, and five small fractures in his left knee. Still, it could have been much worse. Given that there were no fatalities, he said the group’s guardian angels “were surrounding us.”

“We were all truly blessed that we were able to get off that mountain,” Tom Wallace said. “It gives you a much greater feeling of purpose when you survive something like that. It means the Lord was not ready to take us.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Omaha’s Miracle Man

How Legate Dr. Edward Gatz’ extraordinary healing led to a new Catholic saint . . .

cover-april14Nothing strikes the core of our being more powerfully than coming face-to-face with our own mortality. So when Dr. Edward Gatz — a member of Legatus’ Omaha Chapter — learned that he had six months to live, it sent his mind reeling.

The great irony is that Gatz was given six months to live more than 25 years ago.

His friend and anesthesiology partner, Dr. Donald Kerr, broke the news to him on Jan. 10, 1989. Gatz was 51 years old, working 80 to 100 hours a week as an anesthesiologist at Omaha’s then-Bergan Mercy Hospital.

But at the time, no one could foresee how the tragic news would one day turn into tremendous joy for thousands.

Deadly cancer

A few weeks earlier, Gatz had noticed thousands of bumps on his hands. Preliminary tests were inconclusive. Then his doctor had him undergo an endoscopy which revealed a fist-sized cancerous tumor which spread through his esophagus, around the vagus nerve and into the stomach.“We went home after the terrible news,” recalled Jeanne Gatz, his wife. “Ed was stunned and depressed. I asked him what the next step would be, and he said, ‘Nothing.’” Gatz believed that this type of cancer — adenocarcinoma of the esophagus — wouldn’t respond to radiation or chemotherapy.

Ed and Jeanne Gatz

Ed and Jeanne Gatz

“I came home and called Fr. Richard McGloin immediately, a Jesuit friend and former teacher at Creighton University. He was a walking saint,” said Jeanne. “I told him we needed his prayers.”After Jeanne explained that her husband did not want to do anything, Fr. McGloin said something which stunned her: “The doctors have never heard of Jeanne Jugan, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. You and I will say a novena to her every day without fail for Ed’s cure.”Neither Jeanne nor Ed knew the Little Sisters of the Poor, but Fr. McGloin had been a chaplain at one of their centers in Milwaukee during the 1950s. During that time, he developed a profound devotion to the order’s French foundress.

Jugan had been beatified in 1982. The Little Sisters of the Poor — founded in 1839 and dedicated to helping the elderly poor — had been praying for years for another miracle that would bring Jugan to canonization.

In the meantime, the Gatz family traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for surgery, which was purely palliative. It removed as much of the tumor as possible, including 70% of the esophagus and half of the stomach. Father McGloin sent a letter to Jeanne during her time in Minnesota with an official Jugan novena prayer card. In the letter, he wrote: “If she [Jugan] wants to become a saint, she better get busy.”

St. Jeanne Jugan

St. Jeanne Jugan

Gatz’s specific cancer type had never spared anyone in U.S. history. Yet, when Gatz had his first CAT scan three months later, no cancer could be found. Six months later, no cancer. Jeanne and Fr. McGloin continued to pray the Jugan novena every day for five years. The cancer never returned.

Prior to surgery at the Mayo Clinic, Gatz received the Anointing of the Sick three times. His depression left him as soon as he had the first anointing. With each subsequent anointing, he felt more grace and more peace. It is interesting to note that Gatz never prayed the novena to Jugan.

Verified miracle

One evening 13 years later, the Gatzes went to a dinner for their archdiocese. That evening a monsignor at their table heard of this medical miracle and suggested that it be documented.As fate would have it, the Gatz family was hosting two consecrated Legionary women at their house that weekend. One of them had just stayed at a Little Sisters of the Poor residence in Kansas City. She had a phone number and a name: Sr. Marguerite McCarthy.“This was the hand of God,” said Jeanne. “Sister Marguerite was the perfect one. I told her our story. She was convinced it was the miracle they had been praying for. She kept calling the motherhouse and pushing the process along.”

The intensive investigation took seven years — from 2002 to 2009 with several roadblocks along the way.

Dr. Gatz receives Communion from Pope Benedict XVI.

Dr. Gatz receives Communion from Pope Benedict XVI

“I had to get my medical records from Bergen Hospital,” Gatz explained. “All of the records were on old machines that wouldn’t work. I had to literally kick a machine to get it on.”

“A tribunal was set up in Omaha to determine the authenticity of this miracle,” Sr. Marguerite added. “And then it sent all their findings to Rome.”

The Gatz family was with Sr. Marguerite in San Pedro, Calif., when they got word that the miracle had been accepted and that Jugan would be canonized.

“Our reaction was just joy and gratitude,” said Sr. Marguerite. “The Little Sisters had been praying for this. We wanted her raised to sainthood.”

The Gatzes traveled to Rome for the canonization on Oct. 11, 2009, with hundreds of Little Sisters of the Poor. They stayed at the Order’s house in Rome and met Mother General Celine de la Visitation, the order’s superior.

Since then, the couple has visited many Little Sisters facilities across the country. They are welcomed as part of the family.

Edward Gatz is now 76 and healthy, and Jeanne continues to pray to St. Jeanne Jugan every day for all her intentions — confident that she has a friend in heaven.

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

 

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius

gatz-2The Little Sisters of the Poor came to America in 1868. They operate 29 U.S. homes and serve 13,433 elderly. Worldwide, they run 193 houses in 31 countries.

Despite their quiet work, the Little Sisters have launched a legal battle against the federal government’s contraceptive mandate. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, is representing the Little Sisters in a class-action federal lawsuit which includes over 500 Catholic nonprofit organizations.

The mandate would force the nuns to go against Church teaching by forcing them provide health insurance to employees that covers abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations.

“The federal government has put the Little Sisters of the Poor to the choice of either violating their faith or paying millions of dollars in fines,” said Daniel Blomberg, a member of the Becket Fund’s legal team defending the Little Sisters. “No American should ever be placed in this situation.”

A district judge ruled against the Sisters in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 27, and four days later, an appellate judge ruled against them. However, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Sisters temporary relief from the mandate on Dec. 31, just three hours before fines against them would have begun accruing. The case has been sent back to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to be retried.

“We are praying every day to St. Jeanne Jugan about this, and we are having our residents pray,” Sr. Marguerite explained. “Why should the government have the right to do this? We want to witness to life at the beginning and the end of life.”

—FERRISI

Will Fulton Sheen’s beatification play in Peoria?

Peoria chaplain investigated miraculous healing attributed to Bishop Fulton Sheen . . .

Monsignor Jason Gray

Monsignor Jason Gray
Peoria Chapter

Monsignor Jason Gray has above-average responsibilities in the most average city in America. In addition to serving as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Peoria, the 40-year-old is the diocesan judicial vicar. Most of his work for the tribunal involves annulments, “a most important ministry.” Recently, however, his work in canon law took a turn from the mundane to the miraculous: He headed the investigation into a possible miracle attributed to Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen, whose cause for beatification the Peoria diocese is promoting on behalf of its most famous native son.

Tell us about your call to the priesthood.

When I was young I was involved in my parish as a musician, playing the piano and organ. But I was fairly resistant to the possibility of priesthood. It was more of a sudden conversion that came down to whether I was seeking God’s will or mine. That was the hurdle I had to come over.

When I was a senior in high school, the assistant pastor at my parish urged me to go a diocesan vocation retreat, so I went — mainly to get him off my back. Soon afterward I felt very strongly that the priesthood was my path. I went directly from high school to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary. From there I went to the North American College in Rome, arriving the same year Cardinal Timothy Dolan became rector — a very exciting time to be there because he’s so dynamic.

How did you become acquainted with Legatus?

After the chapter’s first chaplain was reassigned to other duties in 2008, Bishop Daniel Jenky asked me to step in. I guess I was a natural choice, being pastor of a sizeable parish where some of the parishioners were Legatus members.

By drawing together Catholic leaders in this area, Legatus allows them to draw support and encouragement from each other. To feel that you’re not fighting your battles alone — the strength of that support is a great assistance. Legatus is a blessing for the Peoria diocese because it strengthens the Catholic identity of lay leaders.

How would you like to see the chapter progress?

One of the good qualities of this chapter is the depth of members’ devotion. There are about 20 member couples, and they’re sincere about the faith and their desire to promote it. I’d like to see more members attend the annual Summit. Some have, and they came back mightily encouraged in their Catholic identity.

How do you approach your role as chaplain?

I see my role as providing spiritual assistance. By celebrating Mass I want to share with members the sacraments and challenge them in the faith. I also want to encourage them in their own spiritual devotions. To the extent that I can provide them with spiritual nourishment in a way suited to where they are, I will. I’m available for Confession before Mass, and I’m open to providing in-depth, one-on-one spiritual direction.

You have a vocation, of course. Any avocations?

I’ve been playing the piano and organ since the second grade. When I was at the North American College, I had the awesome opportunity to play the organ at St. Peter’s Basilica during ordinations of deacons.

Tell us about your work involving Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.

I headed the diocesan tribunal into the inquiry about a local miracle attributed to him. A child was considered stillborn — he had no pulse for the first 61 minutes of his life. He was about to be pronounced dead by doctors, but then his heart started beating after his parents prayed for Fulton Sheen’s intercession. The boy, James Fulton Engstrom, is one-and-a-half years old now and doing just fine.

The tribunal has been closed, and we sent our findings to Rome last December. I enjoyed the opportunity to apply my canonical studies in a rigorously scientific manner. We had to know if the science was solid and that we’d be able to say the only explanation was the Servant of God Fulton Sheen’s miraculous intercession.