Twenty years later, Jacob Sebest vividly remembers the feeling of slipping down a quick slope in the pool as a five-year-old, scraping a heel on that slope and hitting his head on the bottom of the pool. “I wanted to chase after my big brother Joey and tried to go in the deep end,” recounted Jacob, known as “Jack” to family and friends.
Jacob’s memory fades after that, until awakening two and a half days later in his mother arms. His astonishing survival led to Pope Francis approving Jacob’s healing as a miracle through the intercession of Venerable Mother Maria Teresa Casini, who was named Blessed in 2015.
Today, Jacob, director of development for the Newman Center at Youngstown State University, said, “I’m very blessed and honored that it happened to me.” With a statue of Blessed Mother Maria Teresa Casini near him at home and in his office, Jacob maintains a strong devotion to her.
Born in Frascati, Italy, in 1864, Mother Casini founded the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1894, which has about 300 Sisters today, serving in Italy, Brazil, Africa, India, Peru and the United States.
“I have nothing but love and respect for the Oblate Sisters for their dedication of prayer and for everyone throughout the diocese that prayed for me,” he commented.
That devotion began at an end-of-season swim party for Joey’s baseball team at a private residence in Brookfield. Marcy Sebest, Jacob’s mother and administrative assistant to the assistant principals at Ursuline High School, recalled, “Jack had gotten out of the water and was drying off because we were leaving. I turned around to throw my plate away and Jack was not there. I started searching the property looking for different areas where a child might go. The pool was the last place we looked because he had been out of the water drying off.”
It was 9 p.m., Wednesday, June 25, 2003. The water was cloudy because excessive heat that week had raised the pH level in the water. “We couldn’t see the bottom of the pool and there were no lights in the water,” Marcy noted.
When Jacob was pulled from the pool 13 minutes later, his body was blue from the waist up. Paramedics rushed Jacob to Sharon Regional Hospital, then to Tod Children’s Hospital in Youngstown, where he was put in a medically induced coma.
After an assessment at Tod, “the intensivist told us Jack wouldn’t survive the first 24 hours, and to prepare for that. When he did, the doctors anticipated him going into cardiac arrest,” said Marcy.
Marcy, who knelt at Jacob’s bedside praying, asked several priests to lead their congregations in prayer for Jacob. “I wanted to storm the heavens,” she continued.
Marcy’s late husband Joseph also contacted the Oblate Sisters, thinking Jacob might respond to their voices as he and Joey had been students at the Oblate Sisters’ Villa Maria Preschool in Hubbard. “The night of the accident, two Oblate Sisters arrived at the hospital at 11:30 and stayed with us. The next morning, two others came with a prayer card. We stood at Jack’s bedside and prayed to Mother Casini on his behalf. When they left, I put the prayer card on Jack’s pillow. It stayed there until he woke up,” Marcy related.
Friday, June 27, was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “Unbeknownst to us, the sisters were having the feast day Mass in their chapel and praying for Jack. That night, Jack moved one of his fingers. When my husband called the Oblate Sisters later to say Jack had moved a finger, we learned it was during the Mass,” said Marcy, still amazed at the timing.
Saturday morning, doctors said they couldn’t keep Jacob on life support any longer. “Because they didn’t expect him to survive being extubated, I held him. As soon as they removed the tube, Jack began talking. When he stood up, all the doctors and nurses had to leave the room because they were so overcome with what they were seeing,” Marcy said.
Marcy remembers the intensivist, who was Muslim, saying, ‘I don’t know your God, but I know your son was touched by a hand not mine.’
Of the drowning, Jacob said, “Everyone likes to ask me if I met God or went to the other side. That’s not the case, but I definitely feel very blessed and honored [the miracle] happened to me.”
Growing up, Marcy and Joseph wanted Jacob to have a normal childhood. “We didn’t want him treated any differently. He was just a regular little kid,” she said.
Although Jacob always knew the story of his healing, the family didn’t speak of the miracle publicly, out of concern some people would want to touch Jacob or think differently of him. “We would say that we’ve been touched in such an amazing way, but we’re just grateful. Jack always wanted the attention to be on Mother Casini and God’s grace, not him. Not until the miracle was confirmed by the Vatican [in 2015], did we talk about it publicly,” stated Marcy.
Faith was always central to Jacob, a graduate of Hubbard St. Patrick Catholic School and Youngstown Ursuline High School. “I grew up praying and going to Mass with my family. I knew deep down I was called to do great things, whether I wanted to or not,” remarked Jacob with a laugh.
Having been granted a second chance at life, Jacob thought God might be calling him to the priesthood. After high school graduation in 2016, he entered the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus. “Through the discernment process, I discovered that God was not calling me to the priesthood, but to live my life in the community,” he explained.
So Jacob returned home and enrolled in Youngstown State University’s nonprofit leadership program, earning a degree in communications and nonprofit leadership in 2020. “I wanted to give back to the community in the nonprofit world, and I liked working with people,” he said.
Jacob’s first connection to the St. John Henry Newman Center at YSU happened during his seminary years, however. His brother, Joey, went to YSU and was very involved at the Newman Center, so they would go to the late Mass there together when Jacob was home from seminary. He made many friends at the Newman Center during that time.
Later, as a student at YSU, Jacob continued that involvement. “By the time I came, the student participation was much smaller,” he said. Following graduation, Jacob was asked to be on the Newman Center Advisory Council, a commitment he maintained for three years while working at Habitat for Humanity.
Student participation grew during that time, resulting in the need for a director of development. They hired Jacob in that position in June 2022.
Jacob’s new role includes building community support, publicizing Newman Center offerings and activities and involving community members with Newman Center events. “We want people to recognize that we’re here and that there’s a large community of young adult students at YSU who are looking for a connection with their peers and for help in growing their faith,” noted Jacob.
Part of fostering community patronage entails fundraising, working on appeals, producing newsletters and organizing events such as tailgate parties for students and alumni, fish fries, golf outings and more. “There’s always this revolving door of events or fundraisers. We want to make sure our supporters feel included. We don’t want to just take people’s money and have them feel like they’re not involved,” stated Jacob.
The goal of all these efforts is to strengthen the Newman Center. “We have no parish support. We’re not asking the college students to drop money in a collection basket. Everything that we do on a daily basis needs funding. We don’t have a steady income that we can rely on,” said Jacob.
Acknowledging the drop in Mass attendance among young adults, Jacob credits Catholic institutions in encouraging his own faith. “It’s easy to fall away from your faith if you don’t hear about it from your peers. But if all your peers are familiar with the faith, it’s not so off-putting to talk about it. Newman Centers provide the right environment for people to openly talk about their faith, be able to stand up for their faith and stick up for what’s right.
“What we’re trying to capture here is why we believe what we believe, making that sense of urgency—I want to go to Mass on Sunday. I need to go. I want to have a deeper relationship with God, because I crave that, and it’s a part of who I am. It shouldn’t be so much about fear of doing the wrong thing as wanting to grow your love for God,” Jacob stressed.
The Newman Center strives to have a variety of programming—along with offering adoration and the Sacraments, the center offers casual meals, movie nights and spontaneous nights out. “I think that’s really important to show that you can still have fun while being Catholic. Being Catholic isn’t a checklist. It’s your lifestyle. We’re trying to show how to live every day being Catholic—whether you’re watching a movie, praying or playing golf.”
Jacob sees his work at the Newman Center as a ministry and an investment. “You’re looking at the future of the Church. When you donate and support the young adults, you’re investing in the future of our diocese … in full pews,” said Jacob.
Jacob sees that investment paying off, as membership is growing at the Newman Center, including among international students, many of whom are not Catholic. “That’s been encouraging to me, to see that other people are interested and we’re planting that seed. We’re not being forceful—that they need to come to Mass—but we’re just inviting them to a casual meal and letting them know about daily Mass before the meal, just being a good neighbor,” Jacob noted.
As for the miracle that brought Jacob new life, it took 12 years for it to be approved by the Vatican. “One of the arguments for determining a miracle is that a number of persons must have prayed intently for the individual,” said Sister Joyce Candidi, regional superior of the Oblate Sisters and director of the Office of Vowed Religious for the Diocese of Youngstown.
Initially, the religious community was simply grateful that Jacob woke up. “We were rejoicing with the family and happy for them. It wasn’t until several days later that we thought it might be a miracle,” Sister Joyce continued.
The Vatican also required extensive medical documentation. “Jack was examined by all kinds of specialists and his teachers, [he] had a lot of different testing to look for any long-term damage from the drowning. They have no scientific reasoning for why he survived and is perfectly fine. We’ve known it was a miracle all along, but we have an obligation now to share that. We have to say, ‘God is good,’” Marcy stated.
After going to Italy to celebrate the beatification of Mother Maria Teresa Casini as a healthy 17-year-old in 2015, Jacob said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to Italy the same way. I got to meet Pope Francis and I did a reading at St. Peter’s Basilica for the Sunday Mass. My mom and brother were in the Offertory procession. We carried a relic of Blessed Mother Maria Teresa Casini through her hometown, Frascati, and had a Mass of celebration in the town square. It was a surreal experience.”
Beatification, which requires one confirmed miracle, is a key step toward canonization. If Mother Maria Teresa Casini were to have a second miracle attributed to her intercession, she could be canonized.
Being a role model, both as the beneficiary of a miracle and in his position with the Newman Center, is important to Jacob. “It helps keep me in line. If I’m holding some sort of public image and there are people looking to me, I need to lead myself down the right path as well,” he remarks.
Jacob encourages the students he encounters not to have a judgmental state of mind regarding their faith, but rather an open invitation to live the faith. “One of the strong suits of the younger generation is that they’re more vulnerable and willing to talk openly about things. I think if we continue to push that so people are comfortable talking about their faith, they’ll realize there’s more Catholics out there than what the media seems to say. Being open with your friends about what you believe and how you live out your faith is probably the best way to evangelize,” he said.
“We want our students to know that after they graduate it’s OK to be a lifelong Catholic and live and support other Catholics as you get older,” added Jacob, who never forgets the role prayerful support played in his life.
Steps Toward Sainthood
Prayer to Venerable Mother Maria Teresa Casini
This is the prayer that was prayed at Jacob Sebest’s bedside and by many throughout the Diocese of Youngstown for his recovery from drowning. A newer prayer was written after Mother Casini was named Blessed.
O Jesus, Burning Furnace of Love and Charity, and Victim for sins, we humbly pray that you glorify here on earth the Venerable Mother Maria Teresa Casini, who through self-oblation and reparation, offered herself for the promotion of priestly vocations and sanctification of Priests. Through her intercession grant us the favor we ask for with confidence …
*Recite the Glory Be Three Times.*