Pope Benedict XVI
declared Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) “venerable” on June 28, and the
Illinois-native could soon become the first male American-born saint. A few
generations back he was the face of the Catholic Church in America for many, employing
his strong speaking ability, personal piety and learning, and modern media to
win many converts to the Catholic faith.
Sheen was born in
El Paso, Illinois, and grew up in nearby Peoria. He was ordained a priest for
the Diocese of Peoria in 1919, and was made auxiliary bishop for the
Archdiocese of New York in 1951 and bishop of Rochester in 1966. But Sheen is
best known for his evangelization work through the media. He hosted The Catholic Hour radio program from
1930 to 1950, and Life is Worth Living,
a television program for which he won an Emmy Award, from 1951 to 1957. He also
authored more than 70 books on theology, philosophy, spirituality, marriage,
the priesthood, and current events, and he helped convert a number of notable
personalities to the Faith.
Someone who knew
Sheen well and hopes to live to see his beatification is his niece Joan Sheen
Cunningham of Yonkers, New York, age 85. Seventy-five years ago Joan left her
midwestern family and came to New York to attend school under the guardianship
of her uncle. She recently shared her memories of Archbishop Sheen with Catholic World Report.
was your relationship to Archbishop Fulton Sheen?
Joan Sheen Cunningham: My father, Joseph Sheen
(1899-1956), was the younger brother of Fulton Sheen. There were four Sheen
brothers; Fulton was the oldest, and my father the second oldest. The two other
brothers were Thomas and Al. My father was the closest to Fulton.
I was born into a
family of eight in Peoria, Illinois. My father was a lawyer. When I was age 10,
he sent me to New York to go to school, under the care of my uncle, Fulton
Sheen. He was like a second father to me.
you were close to him?
Cunningham: Oh, yes. He took an interest in
everything in my life. He took me to do things on the weekends. Sometimes, he
took me ice skating at Rockefeller Center. He’d buy me pastries. Sometimes
we’d visit his priest-friends at church rectories.
He’d take me to the
store and pick out dresses for me. When I was older, he’d ask, “Who are you
dating?” When I got married, he set up my apartment. He bought my furniture. He
even went to the supermarket and bought food for my refrigerator.
He baptized my
three children and gave them their first Communion. In fact, he gave me my
he was a celebrity, did people come up to him frequently on the street?
Cunningham: People would stop him all the time.
They’d want to shake his hand. He’d always take an interest in whoever walked
up, taking the time to greet them. He always welcomed them, and was never short
with anyone. He was just my uncle back then, it didn’t dawn on me until later
that he was a celebrity.
Since he was known
for his generosity, people would often come up to ask him for money, telling
him how they were down on their luck. He’d hand them $20. I’d ask him, “How do
you know that they’re not putting you on; that they really need help?”
He’d answer, “I
can’t take the chance.”
He had a great love
for the poor. When he served as national director for the Society for the
Propagation of the Faith (1950-66), he visited the missions in Africa, and was
distressed by the poverty he saw. He’d say, “Oh, if you could see the poor souls
there.” As much as he loved teaching, I think the highlight of his career was
being director of the Society, so he could help those people and the
missionaries who served them.
When he was made bishop
of Rochester, he would regularly go to the homes of poor people to celebrate
Mass. He was criticized because if a school there had low enrollment, he’d want
to close it, sell the property, and give the money to the poor. He saw how the
poor in Rochester were in need of medical care, so he wanted to supply a
medical van, staff it with doctors and nurses, and drive it to parts of town
where the poor needed help. He went to a local hospital with the idea, but they
wouldn’t help him.
different back then. There was not the stress on helping the poor like there is
today. My uncle always worried about the poor.
He was also kind to
outcasts. I remember one man that was disfigured by leprosy who always came to
his radio broadcasts. People in the audience would see the man, cringe at his
appearance and move away from him. My uncle would say to me, “Joan, go over and
talk to that man, he’s very nice.”
was his personality like? He referred to himself as a serious man.
Cunningham: He was serious, but he also had a
terrific sense of humor, and managed to see the humor in things. He knew how to
have a belly laugh. In fact, two of his friends were comedians Jackie Gleason
and Milton Berle. When my uncle visited California, they’d arrange to get
Two of his best
friends were Bishop Toolen of Mobile, Alabama, and his brother, who was also a
priest. They’d always play gags on one another. On Bishop Toolen’s
birthday, for example, my uncle sent him a St. Bernard dog with a keg around
At home, he loved
to introduce people to his dog Chumley. I don’t remember the breed, but it was
a big dog. He trained Chumley himself. He’d say, “Come here, Chumley, and sit.
It’s Lent, time to sacrifice.” And he’d balance a piece of meat on the
dog’s nose. The dog wouldn’t move until he said, “Now, it’s Easter.” And the
dog would eat the meat.
He also taught
Chumley to pray: he’d put his paws together and growl.
was known for playing a role in the conversions of many people, including
Cunningham: Yes. I remember meeting Clare Booth Luce.
She’d come for breakfast at his house.
what was his physical appearance like?
Cunningham: He was short, maybe 5’7”. None of the
Sheens are tall. Often the way he was photographed would make him look tall,
but he wasn’t.
He’d shave twice
daily, and always dressed nicely. He’d say, “I’m an ambassador of Christ.” People
were always giving him things; the tailor who did his suits, for example,
wouldn’t charge him full price.
He drove a new
Cadillac. A dealer in Washington, DC would give him a new one every two
years. My uncle had helped him years before. The dealer told him, “I’m
having a terrible time with my employees.” My uncle responded, “Why not
share the wealth with them? Give them some of the profits you’re making.” The
man did, and his business improved. The new Cadillacs were his way of saying
Archbishop Sheen was known for being a pious man.
Cunningham: No question. He was always faithful to
his daily Holy Hour, even when he was traveling in Africa. His whole
attitude and outlook had a spiritual tone. I remember, for example, him telling
me to “hold material things with a detached spirit. That way, if you lose them,
it doesn’t matter.”
But besides being a
religious man, he was also down-to-earth. He understood people. Many came
to him with their problems. Everyone admired him and liked him as a person. He
sought perfection in his life; he believed everyone should produce something
with their lives.
Sheen was known for his preaching. Did you observe how he prepared?
Cunningham: He didn’t use notes when he spoke. He’d
keep an eye on the clock, and when it was time to close, he’d have a particular
ending he’d prepared. I was always amazed how he always spoke the right
amount of time and ended so well.
did he enjoy eating?
Cunningham: Hardly anything. He suffered from stomach
problems since he was a boy. It runs in our family.
I’d come over and
cook for him sometimes. He’d have a tiny hamburger, canned peas (the small
ones) and figs for dessert. He loved candy, but doctors told him he
shouldn’t eat it because it was bad for his stomach. People would send him
candy and cookies all the time; he’d eat one piece of candy or one cookie just so
he could tell people he’d had some.
He’d go to nice
dinners all the time and they’d serve him chicken. He told me he hated chicken,
as they always used to give it to him on the farm when he was growing
up. He’d tell me he’d push it around on his plate so that it would look
like he’d eaten some.
were his hobbies?
Cunningham: He loved tennis. He played until the
doctors told him he shouldn’t play anymore. He also played the organ. He
liked music, even though he couldn’t carry a tune.
he have problems with anyone?
Cunningham: He had a terrible time with Cardinal
Spellman. That’s well known. My uncle was very successful with the mission
appeal, and Cardinal Spellman’s collections were not as successful. He asked my
uncle to give him some money, but he refused. He told the cardinal, “People
donated to the missions, and the money has to go to the missions.”
Their dispute went
all the way to Rome, and my uncle won. The cardinal didn’t want him speaking in
New York, and told his priests not to have him come to their parishes. I’m sure
that being sent to Rochester was the cardinal’s doing. It was a heartache for
He was buried under
the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. My uncle had bought a
plot in Queens and had intended to be buried there, but Cardinal Terence Cooke
called and offered to bury him in St. Patrick’s. He said, “I want to make up
for the way New York treated him.”
were his final days like?
Cunningham: At the end of his life he had heart
trouble. After he retired at age 75, the doctors thought he might die. He
accepted it, even though he had to spend many days in the hospital. A priest
friend would come every day to help him celebrate Mass.
I helped him pick
out an apartment for his retirement. Two days before he died he called me and
said, “Come over and help me, my books are a mess.” I came over and saw him
sitting on a stool, going through his things. I thought, at last he’s getting
back to his old self.
But, two days later
he was dead. Apparently he died while walking to a chapel he had in his home.
I miss him. He was a wonderful, wonderful man.