NEW YORK – A New York appellate court has overturned a decision by an earlier court directing the transfer of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s body from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to Peoria, Illinois.
On Tuesday, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine where the Archbishop desired to be buried, based on an affidavit from Monsignor Hilary C. Franco that the court believed had not been given appropriate consideration.
Franco served as Sheen’s assistant from 1962-1967.
According to the split 3-2 ruling, “Monsignor Franco stated that Archbishop Sheen had repeatedly expressed his ‘desire to remain in New York even after his death.’ Contrary to the motion court’s conclusion, a fair reading of this alleged exchange, if it is true, is that Archbishop Sheen wished his body to remain somewhere in New York.”
“Likewise, Monsignor Franco recalled Archbishop Sheen’s “fond[ly]” repeating an alleged offer from Cardinal Cooke to be buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If those conversations did in fact occur, they could fairly be viewed as reflecting Archbishop Sheen’s desire to be buried there,” the majority ruled.
Sheen was an American bishop who became one of the most well-known Catholic evangelists of the twentieth century.
He was born in 1895 in Illinois and ordained a priest in 1919 by the diocese of Peoria. He received nationwide fame after moving to New York and hosting a television show, “Life is Worth Living.”
His broadcast would reach up to thirty million viewers each week, with only forty percent of his audience being identified as Catholic. Sheen died at age 84 in 1979 and is buried in the crypt in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
In 2002, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria initiated the canonization process on his behalf, which has been delayed over disputes about requests to return his body to the diocese of Peoria.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has said it was the “personal wish of Archbishop Sheen to be permanently buried beneath the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Family members of Sheen disagree, resulting in a much-publicized legal tug-of-war over his body, and the diocese of Peoria has maintained the cause for canonization cannot move forward until his body is returned to the diocese.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese has stated they hope Peoria will re-open Sheen’s cause, as the Vatican has informed them “there is no requirement that the earthly body of a candidate for sainthood reside in a particular place.”
There is a long, historical tradition of disputes between dioceses over the disposition of the remains of saints. The most famous example is arguably that of Saint Catherine of Siena, who was decapitated so that her head and hand could be sent to Siena while the rest of her body remained in Rome, at the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
Most dioceses are eager to push for the canonization of potential saints affiliated with their particular diocese as they become popular sites for pilgrimages, yielding both spiritual and financial benefits.
To date, the diocese of Peoria is estimated to have spent nearly $1 million dollars to advance Sheen’s cause for canonization.