Court orders Archbishop Sheen's body moved

Update: The Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral plan to appeal the Nov. 17 ruling by New York Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth to have Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s body moved to Peoria, Ill. The trustees oversee both the crypt beneath cathedral, where Archbishop Sheen is buried, and Calvary Cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York. They will seek a stay of the order allowing the transfer, according to a Nov. 22 statement from John M. Callagy of Kelley Drye & Warren, LLP, a Manhattan-based outside counsel representing the archdiocese. Sources: Catholic New York and Catholic News Service

The beatification of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen may be just months away, after a New York Supreme Court justice ruled that the Archdiocese of New York must release the beloved Catholic media evangelist’s body to the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.

The ruling came in response to a June petition filed by Archbishop Sheen’s 88-year-old niece and executor Joan Sheen Cunningham that requested the body be disinterred from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and moved to the crypt in Peoria’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Archbishop Sheen served Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral as a boy, and he was ordained there in 1919. His parents, now buried blocks away, moved from El Paso, Illinois, to Peoria so he and his three brothers could attend St. Mary’s Cathedral School.

A years-long struggle

The battle over the late archbishop’s body has played out in the public eye since 2014, when Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky suspended Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood cause because New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan refused to release the body to Peoria for exhumation and examination, one of the last stages usually required for beatification, which is generally conducted in the diocese where the sainthood cause was pursued.

The Archdiocese of New York contended that Archbishop Sheen lived most of his life in New York, was a New Yorker who wanted to be buried in New York and thus his body should remain at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Cunningham told the court she and Sheen’s other living relatives wanted Sheen’s body moved to Peoria so that the shelved process of pursuing Archbishop Sheen’s possible beatification and canonization could continue.

“We are very pleased with the decision,” said Patricia Gibson, chancellor and attorney for the Diocese of Peoria. “We hope we can all move forward and celebrate the beatification of Fulton Sheen.”

“Joan is extremely grateful and very excited,” Gibson said. “When the remains are transferred to Peoria, we can reopen the process, and we will have a beatification shortly thereafter.”

In 2011, the Diocese of Peoria submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints the case of child born in 2010 in Peoria who, through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen, was revived after 61 minutes without heartbeat or respiration. On March 6, 2014, the board of medical experts which advises the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints unanimously approved the miracle. If Archbishop Sheen’s body is released to the Peoria Diocese, his beatification should occur quickly, Gibson told Our Sunday Visitor.

In her Nov. 16 10-page ruling, New York Justice Arlene P. Bluth said there is “good and substantial reason” to move Archbishop Sheen’s body. “The Court finds that the motivation of petitioner and all other family members for moving the remains is understandable and important to them,” Bluth wrote.

Sheen’s own wishes

Bishop Jenky initiated the cause of sainthood in 2002, after consulting with now-deceased New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who told him “you are the ideal diocese,” said Gibson. Egan also said New York would transfer the body at the appropriate time in the process toward canonization, Gibson contended. The alleged agreement was a point of contention between the two dioceses but did not play into Bluth’s ruling.

The ruling rejected the Archdiocese of New York’s claim to Archbishop Sheen’s body, saying that the objection to moving the remains “is based on unsupported speculation that decedent wanted his remains to stay in New York and that moving his remains to Illinois would contradict his wishes.”

In a will written five days before his death, Archbishop Sheen said he wanted to be buried in Calvary Cemetery, New York’s archdiocesan cemetery, where he had even purchased a plot. However, because of a request to Cunningham by Cardinal Terence J. Cooke of New York, Archbishop Sheen was interred in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Bluth noted that Archbishop Sheen’s wishes were not followed at the time of his burial and that “there is no support for the conclusion that Archbishop Sheen expressed a specific desire to be buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

Cunningham was the one who acceded to the original burial at New York’s iconic cathedral, and the Archdiocese of New York sought her permission for that, Bluth wrote. “After giving that consent in 1979, petitioner now claims, universally supported by Archbishop Sheen’s family, that Archbishop Sheen should be moved to Peoria to support his own canonization process.“

The Archdiocese of New York did not immediately accept the court’s ruling, saying there was to be a review by trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Calvary Cemetery.

“The trustees ... will need to review today’s decision with their lawyers and determine what next steps they wish to take,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York.

A lasting legacy

Archbishop Sheen’s legendary use of media for evangelization made him a household name, and interest in his writings and his reputation for sanctity have grown in the decades since his death in 1979. He hosted the radio show “The Catholic Hour” from 1930-1950, the television show “Life Is Worth Living” from 1950-1957 and “The Fulton Sheen Program” from 1961-1968. He was national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1950-1966 and had a great devotion to the missions. At his ordination in 1919 he dedicated himself to the Blessed Mother and vowed to do a “holy hour” every day, a vow he kept for the more than 60 years of his priesthood.

In 1979, during St. John Paul II’s trip to the United States, the pope embraced Archbishop Sheen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and said, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.”

Nine days later, the pope sent a letter to Archbishop Sheen congratulating him on his 60th anniversary as a priest. He wrote, “God called you to proclaim in an extraordinary way his dynamic word. ... Thus, in these six decades of your priestly service, God has touched the lives of millions of the men and women of our time.”

Pope Benedict XVI declared Archbishop Fulton Sheen “venerable” on June 28, 2012, for displaying “heroic virtue.”

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.