The Fight Within the Catholic Church Over the Bones of America’s First Televangelist
Thirty million people tuned in to watch ‘Life Is Worth Living’ before he was sent into ecclesiastical exile. Now there’s a movement to have him sainted—and a battle over his bones.
Bishop Fulton Sheen was the world’s first televangelist, drawing 30 million viewers to his weekly show until he fell victim to a jealous cardinal who drove him off the air and out of New York into what was called “ecclesiastical Siberia.”
In posthumous recompense for the wrongs he suffered at the hands of Francis Cardinal Spellman, he was accorded the honor of being buried in the crypt beneath the altar at Saint Patrick’s cathedral.
But it was the small Illinois diocese where Sheen started out that began the process of making him a saint back in 2002. And the niece who is Sheen’s closest living relative has filed a lawsuit seeking to have his remains moved to a cathedral in Peoria.
The present New York cardinal, Timothy Dolan, is a huge Sheen fan and is of the stated belief that his hero would want to stay undisturbed where he is.
A lower court judge found in favor of the niece but the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division has reversed that decision. And the battle of the blessed bones will now return to the lower court.
Such doing would have been beyond all imagining back in 1952, when Sheen, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He went on to beat out comedian Milton Berle for the 1953 Emmy for Most Outstanding Personality.
“He’s got better writers,” Berle famously responded. “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
Sheen lightened the scripture with humor. In one episode about the Good Samaritan, he offered a possible reason why the long ago priest and an assistant walked past a man who had been beaten and robbed.
“One explanation that was given is that they found the man already robbed,” Sheen said with a twinkle.
He went on to recount an encounter of his own with a panhandler who came up and requested $31 for a cup of coffee.
“I gave him a dollar and then it suddenly dawned on me. ‘Thirty-one dollars,’ I said. ‘Why do you want $31? A coffee and breakfast will only cost you a dollar. Why do you want the 30?’ And you know what he told me? ‘You wouldn't want me to go into a restaurant dressed in this suit, would you?”
But there was nothing funny at all about Sheen’s off-screen dispute with Spellman involving money and milk. Sheen was forced off the air in 1957, the same year he was nominated for a second Emmy.
The nature of the disagreement is described in court papers by Sheen’s niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham. She went to live with him at the age of 10 and remained as close to him as a daughter through the rest of his life.
“As a result of his larger than life persona stemming from the popularity of his television show… my uncle raised millions of dollars for the poor all around the world through the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.” Cunningham says in an affidavit. “In the late 1950s, the government donated millions of dollars in powdered milk to the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese gave the milk to the Society to distribute to the poor.”
Spellman had then sought to exact tribute from the celebrity televangelist, and put him in his place.
“On a number of occasions, Cardinal Spellman insisted that my uncle give a million dollars of the money raised by the Society to the Archdiocese to ‘pay for’ the donated milk.” Cunningham continues.
“My uncle refused; that money was raised for the poor, was intended to go to the poor, and he insisted that it go to the poor. Cardinal Spellman took the dispute all the way to Pope Pius XII in Rome with whom Spellman was friendly.”
Spellman was indeed extremely close to Pope Pius XII and no doubt assumed he would prevail. But the friendship may have made the pope feel all the more betrayed when he learned that Spellman had failed to tell him that the milk for which he wanted $1 million had been donated to the archdiocese by the government at no cost at all. The pope ruled in Sheen’s favor.
“Spellman was furious and told my uncle that he would 'get even’ with him,” Cunningham says in the affidavit.
Sheen suddenly found himself without a show.
And Spellman was not done.
“Spellman cancelled my uncle’s annual Good Friday sermon at Saint Patrick's, discouraged other New York clergy from befriending him, and ‘reassigned’ him to an upstate diocese,” Cunningham says in her affidavit.
Exiled to Rochester, Sheen told the retiring bishop there that there was no need to move from the well-appointed home where he had been living.
“My uncle moved into an apartment over the bingo parlor,” Cunningham notes in an unpublished memoir included in the court papers to document her close connection to Sheen.
Rochester was struggling economically, and Cunningham remembered seeing numerous Native Americans who were panhandling. Sheen was always quick to give them money.
“What if they use it for drink?” Cunningham asked him.
“Their children might be hungry,” Sheen answered.
Cunningham notes in her memoir, "He always loved the poor, and there was a lot of poor. He went to homes all the time. He would say Mass in their living room! He was a priest ahead of his time. Other priests weren’t really doing that sort of thing, and then, suddenly, here was Fulton Sheen doing it. “
Sheen angered conservative Catholics by opposing the Vietnam War and speaking out against racial discrimination, even siding with a civil rights group protesting the minority hiring practices of Kodak, which had such influence in Rochester that some called it a company town. He was shocked by the reaction when he sought to sell underused church property to make room for affordable housing.
“They literally threw rocks at his car and picketed against him,” Cunningham says in her memoir. “I was upset for him, but he accepted it all as God’s will. He said, ‘That’s alright.’”
Cunningham concludes, “I don’t think the people of Rochester really understood him or what he was about.”
After Spellman died in 1967 and Sheen neared a retirement age, he decided to return to New York. He telephoned Cunningham at her home in Yonkers on a Monday morning.
“You’re going to have to find an apartment for me today,” he told her, as recounted in the memoir.
As if finding a Manhattan apartment in a day were not impossible enough, Sheen said he wanted one that was not too expensive but had an East River view and two bedrooms, one to be made into a chapel.
She had no luck with the classifieds and finally just headed for York Avenue, which runs by the river. She saw a white apartment building with a sign reading “Management Office.” She told the manager inside what she hoped to find.
“The manager looked at me in surprise. ‘This is unbelievable. A couple just called today. They had signed a lease, and they wanted to break it.’” Cunningham recalls in the memoir. “It’s got a river view, it’s got two bedrooms and I think you’ll find it fits within his budget.’”
Sheen spent the rest of his life there. A measure of his continued popularity came after Spellman’s successor, Terence Cardinal Cooke, invited Sheen to be a surprise speaker at the 100th anniversary celebration of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in May of 1979. Those in attendance rose to give him a standing ovation.
That October, Sheen returned to the Cathedral for Pope John Paul II’s visit. It was again filled with applause as Sheen entered and took a seat at the far side of the altar until the pope arrived. Sheen then stood before the pope and knelt. The pope assisted Sheen up and embraced him in both arms. The other clergy on the altar smiled and there was more applause, now turning thunderous.
“The preacher to the world,” the pope said of Sheen.
The moment would have resonated all the more for anybody who considered that Spellman was buried in the crypt directly below the altar.
Sheen made the plans for his own interment official in his will written two months and two days after the pope had embraced him. He had been born in the little Illinois town of El Paso. He had made his First Communion and served as an altar boy and been ordained a priest in the small municipality of Peoria. Both places where nice enough when he revisited them in 1975. Neither was where he chose for his final earthly repose.
“Burial in Calvary Cemetery, the official cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York,” Sheen wrote.
Five days later, Sheen was found lying in his chapel, having suffered fatal heart failure. He seemed bound for the grave in Calvary that he had purchased in plot 42, section 46, along with perpetual care. Cardinal Cooke then contacted Cunningham to ask for permission to bury her uncle in the crypt in the cathedral.
“Cardinal Cooke told me it was to make it up to the family for the years of poor treatment that [Sheen] received from the Archdiocese arising from a widely reported dispute my uncle had with the then-Archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman in the late 1950’s,” Cunningham recalls in her affidavit.
A manager at Calvary wrote “Given Up” across the deed for the grave Sheen had purchased. Preparations were made to place Sheen in a cathedral crypt, with several spaces between him and Spellman. The public was first given a chance to bid Sheen goodbye and thousands filed past as he lay in state, so many of them reaching to touch his hand that Cardinal Cooke worried aloud it might break. Those who paid their respects reportedly included an actor named Ramon Estevez, who was inspired to adopt the professional name Martin Sheen.
Five years later, Cardinal Cooke died and went into the crypt with Sheen. Cooke’s successor, John Cardinal O’Connor, joined them after his death in 2000. Edward Cardinal Egan was in charge in 2002, when he received a letter from Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria. Jenky sought Egan’s blessing for the Diocese of Peoria to “initiate a Cause for Canonization of Archbishop Sheen with the goal of having him declared a Saint.”
Egan had been named cardinal partly because of his reputation for cutting costs and consolidating resources. The process of canonization is both prolonged and expensive. He wrote back to Jenky that “I would have no objection whatsoever.”
“Indeed, inasmuch as Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a native of the Diocese of Peoria, served his first pastoral assignment in the City of Peoria and is the most renowned of your diocesan clergy, I believe that the Diocese of Peoria is the ideal diocese to initiate a Cause for Canonization,” Egan went on.
As recounted in an affidavit he submitted as part of the current case, Jenky met with Egan later in 2002.
“[Egan] told me that the Archdiocese of New York was neither interested nor able to put forth the time and effort on such a Cause since the Archdiocese of New York had ‘other priorities,’” Jenky attests. “Cardinal Egan also told me that if and when the Cause was approved, the Archdiocese would consent to transferring Archbishop Sheen’s remains for internment in Peoria.”
Jenky had been working on the Cause for seven years in 2009, when surprising news came from New York. Egan had turned 75, technically the mandatory age of retirement and he had sent in a letter of resignation to the Pope, as had his predecessors when they reached that landmark. But in every other instance, the pope had declined to accept it. Egan became the first New York cardinal whose resignation was actually accepted.
As Egan thereby also became the first to leave the position alive, he was replaced by Timothy Cardinal Dolan. The new cardinal considered Sheen as one of his heroes and officiated at a Mass months after his arrival marking the 30th anniversary of the televangelist’s death.
“Praised be Jesus Christ for the life, teaching, and example of Fulton John Sheen! Welcome to this cathedral so dear to his heart!” Dolan said as he began his homily. “In the middle of the city he loved, whose citizens still smile at the mention of his name, usually quick to share a story of an encounter with him.”
Dolan recounted the moment nine weeks before Sheen’s death when Pope John Paul II had embraced him in this very sanctuary and proclaimed him "the preacher to the world.”
“And it is here he was interred on December 13, 1979, in the crypt below the main altar, where he awaits the resurrection of the dead with two other servants of God—Pierre Toussaint and Cardinal Terence Cooke—in company of previous archbishops and bishops of New York,” Dolan continued,
Dolan did not mention Spellman by name.
“Just so you know, there is also space for Cardinal Egan... and a space-and-a-half for me,” Dolan reported.
Dolan shares Sheen’s propensity for leavening humor and was making joking reference to his girth. But there was no mistaking Dolan’s underlying seriousness about the importance of awaiting resurrection alongside Sheen.
“As members of a supernatural family, the Church, we gather to thank God for him, eager to swap stories about a particular episode, a witty comment, a word of advice, a particular quote, his hypnotic eyes, his soothing yet challenging voice, or an occasion when we were with him,” Dolan said of the personage with whom he anticipated sharing the crypt.
Dolan acknowledged the presence of a distinguished living guest at this anniversary Mass.
“How good that we would have with us the Bishop of his beloved home diocese of Peoria, the Most Reverend Daniel Jenky.
Dolan made no reference to even the possibility that Sheen might be moved. Dolan also hails from the Midwest but he clearly had no intention of being buried there and did not likely imagine that Sheen would have felt any differently.
“We gratefully recall listening to him on the radio or watching him on TV as children or youth, a man who, while indeed clever and wise, still realized he was at his best when but a child in the arms of his blessed mother, or on his knees for an hour before the Real Presence of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, magnetic eyes closed, and renowned voice reduced to a sigh,” Dolan said of his hero.
Dolan recalled a chance encounter with Sheen on a damp winter day in 1973. Dolan had been a seminarian, walking through St. Peter’s Square, when he saw a small but clearly excited crowd near the obelisk.
“Over I went only to see in the middle of the dozens of excited people himself, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen,” Dolan remembered. “Among the handshakes, flashbulbs, and autographs, someone shouted, ‘What are you doing in Rome, Archbishop Sheen?’”
Dolan recalled Sheen replying, “I just came from an audience with Pope Paul VI.”
Someone else had asked, “What did the Holy Father say to you?”
Sheen had blushed and answered, ‘The Holy Father looked at me, took my hand, and said, ‘Fulton Sheen, you will have a high place in heaven’.”
Another in the crowd had asked, “What did you say back?”
Sheen had responded with what Dolan now described as “that familiar sparkle and grin,” saying:
“Well, I replied, ‘Your Holiness, would you mind making that an infallible statement?’”
Dolan was clearly delighted by the memory, just as he was stirred by the thought of the great man interred in the great cathedral, where he himself would one day be. Had Dolan been the cardinal when Jenky approached the Archdiocese of New York, Dolan would not likely have said that New York was neither interested nor able to undertake the Cause for Sheen. Dolan also would not likely have said that Peoria was the perfect diocese to do so.
Dolan certainly would not have consented to move Sheen’s remains from the crypt.
And having heard the homily, Jenky could not have been much surprised when Dolan balked.
But if Dolan viewed Sheen as an inextricable part of New York greatness, Sheen was also Jenky’s hometown hero. And Jenky was deep into the massive expenditure of time and money that Egan had declared New York unwilling and unable to accept.
A timeline Jenky would submit the court shows that during the course of six years, his diocese had conducted an inquiry into Sheena’s “life and works,” collecting thousands of pages of testimony from witnesses “to his personal holiness.” The Peoria diocese had also documented two “alleged miracles" attributed to Sheen. All the materials were hand delivered to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, which commenced its own investigation into Sheen’s “heroic virtue.”
When the Archdiocese in New York continued to balk, Jenky put his effort on pause, making clear it was due to questions with the Archdiocese of New York regarding Archbishop Sheen’s mortal remains.
But Jenky then resumed as the process in Rome proceeded. Jenky presented a summary of Sheen’s history to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
“The Pope mentioned to Bishop Jenky that he knew Archbishop Sheen personally,” the court papers note.
The end of the year saw the conclusion of a tribunal into one of the miracles—a stillborn baby who had been revived after the mother appealed to Sheen. The miracle was affirmed and Sheen was officially declared “Venerable.” The next stage was beatification.
In 2012, Jenky again put the process on pause, “for the foreseeable future.” He seemed to have reached an impasse, as even Cunningham was initially saying her uncle’s remains should stay put in New York.
Cunningham had a change of heart when she learned that Sheen would not just be stashed in some Peoria cemetery, as she had feared. Jenky was building a beautiful shrine in the Cathedral of St. Mary there. She decided that if her uncle had known he might become a saint, he would have wanted his remains to be moved to the shrine erected by the hometown folks who had worked for years to make it all possible.
When Cunningham made her feelings known, Dolan and therefore the Archdiocese of New York still continued to balk, insisting that Sheen’s desire to be buried in New York be honored.
As a good Catholic in every sense, Cunningham filed a 2016 lawsuit against the archdiocese only with the greatest reluctance. The archdiocese sought to bolster its position with an affidavit from Monsignor Hilary Franco, who described himself as a close friend of Sheen. Franco says in the sworn statement that Sheen “expressed to me many times his desire to remain in New York even after his death.”
Franco goes on to say, “While I was an official at the Vatican, I would come back from Rome to visit the Archbishop at his apartment in New York where he resided after his retirement. During our conversations, he was fond of repeating that Cardinal Cooke had offered him—when the Lord would call him—to be buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.”
In a reply affidavit, Cunningham notes nobody in her family can recall Sheen ever mentioning that he had been offered interment in the cathedral.
“So I was more than a little surprised and suspicious when I read Msgr. Franco’s affirmation,” she says. “His claim that my uncle was ‘fond of repeating that Cardinal Cooke had offered him’ burial in St. Patrick’s did not sound right to me. Indeed, it sounds nothing like the Fulton John Sheen I know and love. One of his greatest qualities, among his many—actually a virtue that is found in any fine priest—was his humility. My uncle would never have engaged in the kind of braggadocio that Msgr. Franco attributes to him. So I decided to investigate his claim of an ‘offer’ and, as it turns out this non-existent ‘offer’ was known only to Msgr. Franco.”
Cunningham notes, “It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that my uncle would prepare a will in anticipation of his demise a mere five days prior to his deaths stating that he was to be buried in Calvary Cemetery if he already knew—based on this alleged ‘offer’ form Cardinal Cooke—that he was to be buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
She goes on, “It makes little sense as well that Cardinal Cooke would even bother to ask and receive my permission as Archbishop Sheens’ next of kin and closest living relative to bury him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral if his burial there was already a fait accomplit.”
She adds that Cooke did not mention any offers made to Sheen.
“[Cooke] did not tell me that he ever spoke to my uncle about buried in St. Patrick’s,” she says. “If he did, my uncle would definitely have told me. And if Cardinal Cooke did speak with my uncle beforehand there would have been no reason to obtain my permission.”
In other papers, Cunningham’s attorneys—who are paid by the diocese in Peoria—observe that the Archdiocese in New York felt comfortable relying on Cunningham to approve going against Sheen’s stated wish to be buried in Calvary.
So why not rely on her when she says she is sure her uncle would want to be transferred from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Peoria?
On Nov. 17, 2016, Judge Arlene Bluth found in Cunningham’s favor, granting the disinterment request. The New York Archdiocese appealed.
On Feb. 6, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division reversed the decision, primarily on the surprising grounds that Msgr. Franco statements merited fuller consideration. The case was returned to the lower court for reconsideration after an evidentiary hearing. The Archdiocese of New York responded with a statement.
“Today’s decision by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed a lower court order, thereby permitting Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s earthly remains to continue in their resting place in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where they have been since his death in 1979. While the case is being sent back to a lower court for a further hearing, we believe that Archbishop Sheen clearly stated his intention in his Will, written just days before his death, that he be buried in New York, where he conducted his ministry, and where he lived most of his years, including at the time of his death.”
The statement contended that the sainthood process that began in Peoria could continue with Sheen’s remains in New York.
“It is our hope that the Diocese of Peoria will re-open the cause for the beatification and canonization of Archbishop Sheen. There is no impediment to his cause progressing, as the Vatican has told us there is no requirement that the earthly body of a candidate for sainthood reside in a particular place. We offer our support and thanks to the Diocese of Peoria, which has done so much to advance the cause thus far, in working towards the much hoped-for day that Archbishop Sheen will be raised to the altars and proclaimed a saint.”
One irony in the tussle over Sheen’s remains arises when you remember the show that made him the first televangelist was called “Life is Worth Living.”
“He did not dwell on his death, which he viewed as inevitable to us all,” Cunningham says in her affidavit.
And indeed, it was the life he brought to faith that had 30 million people watching him and made him a hero to both Dolan in New York and Jenky in Peoria. A church that has been rocked by so many scandals has an eminence that both his hometown and his adopted city want to claim proudly as their own.
Spotlight becomes sunlight.
An up-close look at this buoyantly human saint in the making is afforded by excerpts of her unpublished memoir of her life with her uncle.
The memoir includes the tale of her finding Sheen an apartment in Manhattan in a single day, which any New York would view as a decided miracle.
As we come to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, a section of her memoir, headed “Priest’s Beast Friend,” bears noting. Cunningham here reports that Sheen had a dog named Chumley.
“My uncle trained the dog himself, and when people were over for dinner, Chumley would sit by his seat. Before the meal, my uncle would tell Chumley that it was time to say grace, and the dog could put his paws together and bow his head as if in prayer.
“Then, when giving him treats, my uncle would say, ‘Chumley! It’s Lent! Mortify yourself’ And he’d lay a piece of meat on the dog’s nose. Chumley would be very still. When my uncle finally said, ‘Easter!’ Chumley would snap back to life—and snack on the treat.”
Who other than a poisonously greedy cardinal wouldn’t want a bishop like that?
The case continues.