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Family, friends connect first Communion in hospital to healing of Joshua Dahlberg, previously paralyzed 7-year-old

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Joshua, Jessica, Jonathan, Lillian and Lucas Dahlberg pray together during Eucharistic adoration at Epiphany in Coon Rapids, Minn., May 2, 2024. They pray once a week at the chapel. Joshua began a remarkable recovery from a debilitating illness hours after he received his first Communion May 13, 2023. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

COONS RAPIDS, Minn. — No mom would ever want to spend Mother’s Day like this: in a hospital room with a 7-year-old son paralyzed from the waist down and told by doctors he might never walk again.

Such was the scenario one year ago on May 14 for Jessica Dahlberg of Epiphany in Coon Rapids. Her son, Joshua, had been hospitalized after a fall while playing soccer five days previously. An MRI at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis May 13 revealed he had transverse myelitis, which, in his case, caused paralysis from the waist down. Doctors told her there was only a 10% chance Joshua would ever walk again.

Jessica, her husband, Andy, both 35, and their other five children were trying to process this radical new reality, which would mean Joshua using a wheelchair for the rest of his life. They also were thinking about how Joshua had to miss his first Communion at Epiphany, which took place the same day as his MRI, May 13.

The devastating news plus missing a sacramental event Joshua had been eagerly anticipating for months weighed heavily on the entire family, especially Jessica.

“Stunned, devastated,” she said of her reaction to Joshua’s condition and grim prognosis. “He always was the healthiest, active boy — loves sports, loves soccer and basketball. So, hearing that my 7-year-old was never going to do any of those things he loves again was heartbreaking.”

Joshua cried, Jessica cried, and now she was going to spend Mother’s Day in a hospital at the bedside of her paralyzed second grader.

Joshua, center, and Lucas Dahlberg, right, compete in the 100-meter dash May 5, 2024, during a middle school track meet at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Minn. Joshua began a remarkable recovery from a debilitating illness hours after he received his first Communion May 13, 2023. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Then, at 3 p.m. that day, there came an unexpected turn that the Dahlbergs say was the start of a remarkable — maybe miraculous? — recovery, one that led to him running in three events at a middle school track meet just one year later, on May 5, in which he left all doubts about his return to health in the dust.

Father Paul Baker, at the time a parochial vicar at Epiphany, got a phone call from a parishioner the weekend of Joshua’s hospitalization suggesting he go to Children’s Hospital to give Joshua his first Communion. Father Baker obliged, and while he was there also gave Joshua the anointing of the sick, generally done for people at the end of life.

Hours later, Joshua started wiggling his toes. In 10 days, he was home and walking with some assistance.

According to Jessica, this befuddled the neurologist who worked with Joshua, and he was not able to offer a medical explanation.

“He said he’s been in the field for about 40 years,” she told The Catholic Spirit, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “He said he’s never seen anything like this before.”

Joshua’s recovery continued after he got home, to the point where he played soccer just weeks later, scoring a goal in his first game. Then came basketball during this past winter and, after that, middle school track this spring. Before the recent May 5 meet, he even bantered with his older brother Lucas, one year ahead of him in school, that he would beat him in the 400-meter run. And beat his brother’s time he did, which reinforces how his parents view the strides that he has made.

“It had to have been some sort of a miracle,” Andy Dahlberg said. “I don’t know how you could deny it at this point.”

Said Jessica: “It is just clear in our heads now what an incredible thing that was. And to be honest, how could it not have been a Eucharistic miracle?”

Father Baker, too, sees something beyond modern medicine at work.

“I don’t have any authority to say whether something is a miracle,” he said, “but you know, how can you not see the hand of God in that?”

For the Dahlberg family, the start of the journey came when they enrolled their oldest four children, including Joshua, at Epiphany Catholic School at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

After previously sending them to public school, they became dissatisfied with how public schools handled the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues. Andy and Jessica felt they needed to make a change. Andy had gone to Epiphany Catholic School and felt this was the best choice for their children.

They knew it would be a financial pinch. But, their faith, and a commitment by both the school and parish to make it financially affordable for all families, propelled them to enroll Joshua and three of his siblings: Lucas, 10, Lillian, 7, and Jonathan, 6.

Their decision would be powerfully confirmed months later.

“As the end of the school year was approaching, all of a sudden, this happens,” Andy Dahlberg said of Joshua’s illness. “Then, we get all these prayers from the whole school. … We would have never had any of those prayers at a public school.”

That collective prayer might be the actual miracle of this story. By the time school resumed after Mother’s Day weekend, prayers were being offered by the entire school — students, teachers, parents, all the way up to the principal, Ann Coone, who mobilized intercession throughout the building. This was her battle cry: “Let’s assemble the army and pray.”

“The communion of saints is powerful,” said Coone, 65, who retired last August after being principal at the school for six years. “It makes me cry thinking about it. And so, it’s just, ‘OK, Lord, what do we do for your glorification and for this little boy and his family?'”

The Dahlbergs were keenly aware of the intercessions being offered for them. “Our whole school was pouring their hearts and souls into praying for him,” Jessica said. “It was amazing seeing our whole community come together.”

As the daily prayers in school continued, including the rosary during morning announcements, Coone came up with an idea. She would create a ceremony to give Joshua the opportunity to offer flowers to Mary, something he had been chosen to do for a crowning ceremony but missed because of his illness. This special ceremony for Joshua took place after he regained the ability to walk but before his return to school.

Coone recalled visiting him in the hospital during his 10-day stay and listening to him describe the disappointment of not only missing his first Communion, but also missing the chance to take part in the crowning of Mary. During that visit, she said to Joshua, “I promise you, you will walk flowers up to Our Lady.”

Her promise was fulfilled with a gathering of students assembled to watch him place a bouquet of flowers at the feet of Mary. As he processed up the aisle toward the sanctuary, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the church,” Coone recalled, noting that Joshua wore his first Communion suit. “It was so beautiful.”

Among those witnessing this event was third-grade teacher Jona Winkelman, who was teaching Lucas at the time and who teaches Joshua this year. She has a sacred theological license in dogmatic theology from the Angelicum in Rome and has taught theology at both the high school and college level. She became a third-grade teacher at Epiphany three years ago because her daughters attend the school.

She paid close attention to Joshua’s illness and recovery, leading prayers in the classroom daily and playing videos of Joshua’s progress that Lucas brought to class along with updates on his brother.

“We saw the videos and we were like, ‘Our prayers are being answered,'” Winkelman said. “It increased their prayer, and the prayer was more fervent and more eager. And we just knew that God was answering our prayers.”

This comes as no surprise to Winkelman, who believes in the power of prayer, especially the prayer of children.

“I have the conviction that God loves the prayers of children better than any other because the prayers of children are perfect and innocent, and they go straight to (God’s) heart,” she said. “And he can’t help but hear them.”

She also said that Joshua’s first Communion in the hospital connects strongly to his healing, noting that the “extraordinary grace of holy Communion is a gift not only to his soul, but to his body.”

Interestingly, Epiphany is home to a display of Eucharistic miracles designed by Blessed Carlo Acutis before his death in 2006. The exhibit features more than 150 Eucharistic miracles that have taken place around the world, with panels showing images, evidence and testimony. Epiphany makes this display available on loan to parishes that are interested.

That the display and Joshua’s recovery both are connected to Epiphany seems fitting to Father Baker, who now serves at St. Agnes in St. Paul.

“I was there for four years at that parish, and I would say it’s a parish where there’s a lot of people with a tremendous Eucharistic faith,” he said. “You could maybe even see (Joshua’s recovery) as a confirmation of that.”