Visits to crypts of St. Francis, Sheen impacted Roanoke man
Photo Caption: Steve Wagner is preparing to enter the Catholic Church with support from his wife, April. He also credits St. Francis and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen for their roles in his faith journey.
By: By Jennifer Willems
ROANOKE — Steve Wagner has always been the kind of guy who needs proof before he accepts something as fact — especially when it came to religion.
Slowly and persistently over the last year he got just that, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi and Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
He knows there will be some who won’t believe him, but that’s OK. Wagner didn’t know what to make of it either when, for the first time in his 52 years, he started to feel a call to new life in Christ at the crypts of these heroes of the faith.
“I’ve actually spent most of my life arguing religion with people,” said Steve, who has lived in Roanoke all his life and works at the Caterpillar plant in Pontiac. “I saw religious stories as just that — a story that people told, their version of what’s going on or why this or that is happening.”
Taken to Methodist and Apostolic Christian churches as a youth, he stopped attending any services at all when he turned 16 and could make the decision for himself. Even after marrying his wife April, a lifelong Catholic, in 1981 he only went to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals.
“I’m agnostic. That’s what I told everybody. I’m agnostic,” he told The Catholic Post. “I question everything. I’ve got to see proof for myself.”
He thinks God started to give him what he was seeking while he and April were on vacation in Italy in September 2011. April wanted to visit Assisi to pray at the tomb of St. Francis and when they got up to leave, the tour guide stopped them.
“You haven’t seen what you came to see,” he said, beckoning them to a part of the basilica they hadn’t been to yet. It was here that they discovered the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi.
“You can walk around and while we were walking around I reached out and touched the tomb. Something happened,” Steve recalled. “I felt like I was lighter. You’ve heard people say something lifted off of their shoulder?”
He had been thinking of his father, who had Alzheimer’s, and his unborn grandson, who had been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called adrenaleukodystrophy (ALD). It only affects males and those who are affected can lose their ability to walk, talk and swallow.
Three out of four die from the disease, said April, who lost three brothers to the disease. She calls her son Ben her miracle because he was not affected, “through many, many prayers.”
With all of this on his mind, Steve touched the tomb of St. Francis again and got another tingle. Since he didn’t know what to make of it, he didn’t say anything to April.
That’s when Fulton Sheen took over.
MAKING A PROMISE
In April of this year, Steve started to wake up at night with the same words running through his mind: “Go see Fulton Sheen.” He had not heard of the media evangelist or know that he was from El Paso and being considered for sainthood.
While he was still trying to figure out what was going on he heard another instruction to see Msgr. Charles Beebe, pastor of the Roanoke parish, and “make a formal request. He will show you the way.”
Steve also saw himself at a white wall behind bronze gates, making a promise.
When he finally confided in April, she made an appointment for him to see Msgr. Beebe. The priest told them that he was on his way to New York and would pray for their grandson, Jaxson, at the tomb of Archbishop Sheen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He also arranged for them to visit the tomb themselves on May 20.
They flew to New York on May 19 and went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to make certain they knew where it was and wouldn’t be late for their appointment the next day. Walking behind the altar Steve saw the bronze gates from his vision and the steps leading to the crypt.
“I almost fell to my knees. I had to hold on to April and the rail just to keep from going down,” he told The Post.
When they descended the stairs to the crypt the next day Steve found the white wall he had seen — and Fulton Sheen.
“I placed my hand on the crypt and I made a promise to God that I would follow the Catholic Church,” Steve said.
Msgr. Beebe had given him a pamphlet with a relic of Archbishop Sheen and the prayers for his canonization and intercession. Steve keeps a photo of Jaxson with it and it is now so well worn that some of the words have been rubbed away.
Keeping his hand on the crypt, he prayed the prayers and asked the potential saint to watch after their grandson. Kneeling at Archbishop Sheen’s kneeler, he said another prayer and then walked out of the cathedral into a rainstorm.
Trying to keep their tiny umbrella over April, Steve was soaked but didn’t complain.
“I’m not getting soaked,” he told her. “The old Steve’s being washed away.”
He made a Cursillo weekend in June — he calls it the towel that dried him off — and April made hers in July. They have worked in the kitchen for nearly every Cursillo weekend since.
Steve has read the biography of Fulton Sheen and his autobiography, “Treasure in Clay,” and is currently reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He prays the rosary using one made for him by Deacon Andy Heckman, who is guiding him through the RCIA process at St. Joseph’s in Roanoke.
“He’s like a sponge — he can’t get enough,” April said. “After 31 years, I love hearing it.”
And what about 9-month-old Jaxson?
They continue to pray for Fulton Sheen’s intercession for his healing as do their daughter and son-in-law, Christina and Bryce LaBorde, Jaxson’s parents. His tests are within normal ranges and he seems to be ahead in terms of development for children his age, April said. The doctors have told them that this usually doesn’t happen without medication.
“My son is a miracle and we know all the miracles attributed to Bishop Sheen,” April said. “We know it can happen if it’s God’s will.”
Sunday marks 33 years
since Abp. Sheen’s death
This Sunday, Dec. 9, marks the 33rd anniversary of the death of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. That will be the intention for the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.
Archbishop Sheen was born in El Paso on May 8, 1895, and ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria on Sept. 20, 1919. Consecrated a bishop on June 11, 1951, he would go on to serve the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.
His longtime media ministry began with a radio program in 1926 and continued with a popular television program, “Life is Worth Living.” Archbishop Sheen also served as the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966 and was a prolific author.