SCRANTON, Pennsylvania — The young Irish immigrant who arrived in Scranton and found work as a custodian at St. Peter’s Cathedral in 1928 could not have known he was about to embark on a path that would make him one of the most influential and beloved Roman Catholic priests of the 20th century.
Ninety years later, that road has led the late Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., to the threshold of sainthood.
On Dec. 18, Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing the heroic virtues of Peyton and bestowing upon him the formal title of “venerable.”
It marked a major advance in the cause for the canonization of the former city resident who became known worldwide as the “rosary priest” and who coined the phrase, “The family that prays together stays together.”
The next step, beatification, which carries the title of “blessed,” requires proof of a miracle through Peyton’s intercession. A second miracle would be needed for the pope to declare Peyton a saint.
Although Peyton lived in Scranton for only about 16 months, he returned to the city regularly throughout his life to visit and to preach his family prayer message. Peyton died in 1992, at age 83.
A large bronze statue of the late priest kneeling in prayer sits in the Cathedral Prayer Garden at St. Peter’s, where his famous saying is inscribed on the gates.
“Certainly for us, Father Peyton holds a very revered place in our lives and in our hearts,” said Joseph C. Bambera, bishop of the Diocese of Scranton. “One would like to believe his faith that prompted him to be the individual he was during his lifetime and certainly now following his death was really nurtured and helped to grow right here in our diocese.”
At Holy Cross Family Ministries in North Easton, Massachusetts, which Peyton founded, Father David S. Marcham said word of the papal decree was met with unbridled excitement.
“We’re really thrilled because not a lot of people get to ‘venerable,’ never mind ‘blessed’ or ‘saint.’ It takes a special person,” said Marcham, who has been at the forefront of the canonization effort for the past decade as vice postulator for Peyton’s cause. “For me, it’s a great joy to share this news with people from places like Scranton but also all parts of the world. People are genuinely happy about it.”
Born in 1909, into a faith-filled family in County Mayo, Peyton left Ireland at age 19 with his older brother, Thomas, to seek his fortune in the United States. They settled in Scranton, joining three of their sisters already living here.
The brothers eventually landed jobs as sextons at St. Peter’s, where the rector enrolled them in St. Thomas High School.
Peyton’s work at the cathedral rekindled his childhood interest in the priesthood and, when the Congregation of Holy Cross extended an invitation, both he and his brother joined the community.
He was still a seminarian and studying at the University of Notre Dame when he was stricken with tuberculosis, an event that would shape his future ministry.
After almost a full year, and as his situation became increasingly grave, Peyton’s priest advisor encouraged him to put his trust in Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Holy Cross community began a novena on his behalf. Within days, Peyton made a recovery, astonishing his doctors, according to his biography.
In gratitude, Peyton vowed to spend his life promoting devotion to Mary, especially through the rosary, a recitation of prayers in her name.
After his ordination in 1941, Peyton spent the next five decades cultivating the faithful through a regimen of rosary prayer, becoming a groundbreaking Catholic media pioneer along the way.
He founded the Family Rosary in 1942, and led a rosary prayer on a local radio station in Albany, New York, the following year. On Mother’s Day in 1945, he prayed nationally with Bing Crosby on the Mutual Broadcasting System, the largest radio network at the time.
That set the stage for a move in 1947 to Hollywood, where Peyton established Family Theater Productions. Utilizing radio and later television, he produced 900 programs of faith featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and celebrities, such as Bob Hope, Maureen O’Hara, Ronald Reagan and Loretta Young.
Billboards with his inspirational messages — including “The family that prays together stays together” and “A world at prayer is a world at peace” — sprang up across the country.
In 1948, Peyton launched his rosary crusades, preaching family unity through the rosary. Forty massive rallies around the world attracted 28 million people, including estimated crowds of two million each in Manila and Rio de Janeiro. He conducted his first American rosary crusade on the grounds of St. Ann’s Monastery in West Scranton in 1949.
Although slowed in later years by a series of heart attacks and other ailments, Peyton remained active in his ministry until his death.
His work is now carried on by Holy Cross Family Ministries, which oversees mission offices in 16 countries in addition to its headquarters in North Easton and the Family Theater Productions media company in Hollywood.
The push for Peyton’s canonization began in 1997, five years after his death, and achieved an initial milestone in 2001, when the late priest was named “servant of God,” the first formal title on the road to sainthood.
In 2003, the Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts opened an official canonization inquiry that, due to its scope, was transferred to the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2008.
As part of the investigation, Holy Cross priests visited the Diocese of Scranton to interview family members and collect documents, such as personal letters, that might offer insight into Peyton’s sacramental life.
The inquiry produced 6,000 pages of documentation that were eventually boiled down into a 1,300-page summary of Peyton’s life and ministry known as a positio. It became the primary source the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints considered in determining Peyton lived a life of heroic virtue, leading to last month’s papal decree.
Peyton’s grandniece, Dunmore resident Maureen Casey, 66, said she and other family members were praying for the advancement of her great-uncle’s cause and were thrilled when the announcement came from Rome.
She described Peyton, whom she knew as “Father Pat,” as a humble, pious man, “very uncommon and not worldly at all.”
He was one of four priests in her extended family when she was growing up, and while each was regarded as a wonderful blessing from God, Peyton stood apart, she said.
“He had a presence about him that attracted people. They were drawn to him,” Casey said. “We never talked about someone being a saint. We just know that Father Pat was different. He had a quietness and a piety.”
Marcham said if and when Peyton is recognized as a saint is something that will happen “in God’s time.”
However, he finds reasons for optimism.
Marcham said the process that led to the declaration of Peyton as “venerable,” while lengthy, moved along with steady, consistent progress without any major hitches.
Perhaps more significantly, he said, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints since 2005 has been reviewing a possible medical miracle attributed to Peyton that, if proven, would lead to his beatification.
The subjects, two members of a family in Africa, were healed of a life-threatening disease and have remained symptom-free after they prayed for Peyton’s intercession with Holy Cross fathers.
“We are encouraged by the fact they are already looking into this possible miracle,” Marcham said. “They didn’t wait at all. They got started right on it.”
As vice postulator for Peyton’s cause, Marcham acts as the gatekeeper of sorts for reports of prayers that have been answered through late priest’s intercession. He welcomes all of them but does a follow-up screening process on reports involving possible miraculous healing.
Depending on what he finds, he may refer the information to Rome for review “and if they think it is worthy, we will study it.”
“So we are asking people to let us know if something, some unexplainable healing, took place through Father Peyton’s intercession,” Marcham said. “We want those people to contact us because you never know — theirs could be the healing that could help him become a saint.”
The Diocese of Scranton expects to play no further role in Peyton’s canonization cause, at least not directly, Bambera said.
At the same time, it is grateful for the late priest and his founding of a ministry that still draws hearts closer to God by inviting families in the diocese and around the world “to a deeper sense of prayer and relationship,” the bishop said.
Marcham said even though Peyton lived in Scranton a short time, it’s where he discovered his vocation and the city should not hesitate to claim him.
“The people of Scranton should be proud that they gave Father Peyton his start,” he said. “Without that, the rest of the story doesn’t happen.”