Here's a brief guide to the Sheen-related sites in and around Peoria
More than the man on TV: Archbishop Sheen’s niece remembers the uncle she loved
Ten-year-old Joan Sheen loved her kind and funny uncle, Father Fulton Sheen. “We just clicked!” she said, explaining how they’d grown closer one summer when he’d spent a few weeks camping with her family. She was never afraid to ask him questions or to share with him her latest ideas.
So when Joan’s father asked whether she’d consider leaving her family’s home west of Chicago to attend a Catholic school near her uncle in New York, she accepted the idea without resistance. “As a priest,” Joan’s father explained, “he could never have children or a family of his own.” But Father Sheen could be a father figure to her. If she was willing to leave behind her family and friends in Illinois, her uncle could offer Joan the opportunity to receive a strong Catholic education in New York City. During the week, Joan would live with a family who had a daughter the same age as herself; but on weekends, she would stay with her uncle — attending Mass, special events and dinners, and discovering the sights and sounds of the city with him.
Young Joan was soon off on an adventure that most children her age could not even imagine. She’d accompany Father Sheen to Mass and sometimes to a talk he’d be giving at a local parish. “Once he gave a retreat at the cathedral,” Joan recalled. “I attended both the afternoon and the evening sessions.”
Joan Sheen Cunningham, Bishop Fulton Sheen’s closest living relative, tells the story of her relationship with her beloved uncle in a new book, “My Uncle Fulton Sheen” (Ignatius, $15.95). She talked recently with Our Sunday Visitor about the book and about her lifelong friendship with her famous uncle.
Life in New York
So it was that Joan left her family’s home in La Grange, Illinois — leaving behind her parents and seven siblings to embrace a new life under the tutelage of her beloved uncle.
“When I was young,” Joan remembered, “I would see him every weekend. I would go with him when he was giving a talk at a church on Sunday — then I’d be invited to the rectory with him and other priests for dinner.” Every priest she met through her uncle, Joan thought, “was the most wonderful man in the world! Because they were so very sweet to me!”
The two — Joan and her famous uncle — would spend a lot of time just walking down Madison Avenue and buying candy. They’d stop in at Schrafft’s candy store and buy Sheen’s favorite, a delicious coconut candy with a chocolate bottom. Sheen was already well known, and he’d be stopped frequently by passersby who recognized him from his “Life Is Worth Living” television show. “People would always stop him,” Joan recalled, “and I didn’t realize just how famous he was. I said, ‘You know more people!’ He always carried little crosses in his pocket, and he would give them away on the street.”
Father Sheen had taken Joan under his wing, enrolling her in St. Walburga’s Academy in Upper Manhattan, which was run by the Holy Child Sisters. “My uncle loved the Holy Child nuns,” Joan explained. “He’d met them first in England. I attended their schools through high school, and they may sometimes have waived tuition for him.”
But Sheen’s supervision of his niece’s education didn’t end there. Knowing that Joan had excelled in ballet back in Chicago, Sheen wanted his niece to have the best dance lessons available in New York; and he enrolled her in the School of American Ballet, a prestigious school founded by the renowned Russian choreographer George Balanchine. “I didn’t realize it was such a prestigious school,” Joan recalled, “but later in life I learned that people couldn’t even get in there! People from the opera, [Russian prima ballerina] Anna Pavlova … so many famous ballerinas came to that school!”
Later, when she was in high school, Joan happened to mention that she was beginning to look at colleges. “You’re not going to have to look,” Sheen told her. “You’re going to Rosemont College.” That Catholic college near Philadelphia was run by the Holy Child Sisters, the same religious order that operated Joan’s elementary school.
Sheen stepped in once again during his niece’s college years to exert his influence. Joan’s father thought that after graduation, she should go to law school. “But my uncle said no,” Joan remembered. “He thought that I should get an apartment in Washington, D.C., and find a job there.” Joan took his advice; and there she dated and eventually married a young D.C.-area attorney, Jerry Cunningham. The two of them — Joan’s uncle and her new boyfriend — had a similar mindset, and so, as Joan said, they “took to each other. … My future husband was very much like my father and the bishop. … He was very religious and had a wonderful sense of humor. When he was sick (Jerry Cunningham had ALS, which eventually claimed his life), no matter how hard it was, he would get down on his knees and say his prayers every morning.”
A parade of famous people
Joan recalled that often when she was young, Father Sheen would tell her that they were having company for dinner — but he wouldn’t tell her in advance who was coming. She didn’t realize that she would be meeting famous people: movie stars like Irene Dunne, Loretta Young and Shirley Temple, former New York governor Al Smith, and broadcaster and journalist Walter Winchell. Through her uncle, Joan met radio stars Jim and Marian Jordan, better known as “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
In particular, she remembered the converts whose faith was awakened by her uncle’s insightful dialogue: Communists including attorney Bella Dodd and Louis Budenz, editor of the Daily Worker; a humble homeless leper named Victor; and congresswoman and ambassador Clare Booth Luce. “I met Clare Booth Luce over the breakfast table,” Joan recalled. Luce was angry at God after the death of her 19-year-old daughter. Sheen helped her to realize that she could come to know Christ through her sorrow, and Luce began classes. Finally, two years later, she entered the Catholic Church.
Meeting for the last time
In the mid-to-late-70s, Joan’s uncle, by then a bishop, was experiencing serious cardiac problems, requiring two open-heart surgeries and lengthy hospitalizations. During his hospital stays, the bishop would often ask friends to visit his apartment and to take books from the library shelves. When books were returned, they were often refiled on a different shelf. The result was that when Sheen finally returned home, he had difficulty finding the books he needed. Without the strength to climb a ladder and replace the heavy tomes in their proper places, Archbishop Sheen called on Joan and Jerry Cunningham for assistance. “He called us on Friday and said to my husband and I, ‘Come down and help.'” Together Joan and Jerry Cunningham, taking directions from the aging archbishop, replaced books in the stacks. “Everything seemed so normal,” Joan said. “I felt like at last, he’s sprung back!”
But what seemed to Joan to be a remarkable recovery proved to be only temporary. Two days later, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 1979, Sheen collapsed and died outside his private chapel, probably after having completed his holy hour. Joan was shocked, but she took comfort in the fact that her uncle had not suffered.
The path toward canonization
In the years since Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s death, Joan continues to feel his influence in her life. “I pray for my uncle’s intercession,” she writes in “My Uncle Fulton Sheen.” “Nothing formal. I just talk to him. Sometimes I come in through the living room, catch sight of his painted portrait there, and say, “Hi.” Joan notes that her uncle had always helped her to see the better part of a situation. She was pleased when, in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced Fulton Sheen “Venerable” because the Church, too, would be perpetuating his memory.
But a conflict delayed the advancement of Sheen’s cause for canonization: Both the Diocese of Peoria, where Sheen had been born and where he served as an altar boy, and the Archdiocese of New York, where he served as bishop and where his world-famous television broadcasts were filmed, claimed that they had the greater right to his remains. New rules issued by Pope Benedict XVI clearly stated that a beatification should occur locally, ideally in the candidate’s home diocese — so by that standard, Sheen’s remains should have been interred in Peoria and not, as they were, buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It appeared that the cause would be delayed indefinitely because of the two dioceses’ disagreement. Finally in 2016, Joan Sheen Cunningham petitioned to have her uncle’s remains moved to Peoria, where the cause for canonization had been opened, in hope of speeding his cause for sainthood. New York officials fought back, insisting in court that Sheen’s final wishes were that he be buried in New York. In the end, though, the court found in Joan’s favor and the remains were disinterred and transferred to Peoria.
That cause did, in fact, move forward. In July 2019, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints officially recognized a miracle attributed to Sheen, the 2010 healing of James Fulton Engstrom, a child who was apparently stillborn. It was announced that Archbishop Sheen would be beatified on Dec. 21, 2019, at Peoria’s Cathedral of St. Mary. Just weeks before that date, however, the beatification was postponed when Rochester’s Bishop Salvatore Matano expressed concern that his predecessor’s handling of a 1963 sexual misconduct case might be cited unfavorably in a report to be released by the New York Attorney General. Although Sheen had never faced criticism for his handling of the case, in an abundance of caution, the Vatican postponed the beatification.
Joan Sheen Cunningham expressed her sadness at news of the postponement, especially with such short notice. “I was terribly disappointed,” she said. “My whole family was disappointed. The postponement came only two weeks before the scheduled date. And I felt worse because there were so many people who were very fond of my uncle, and who had extended themselves to attend the beatification.” Joan worried that the diocese could not recover its costs, and that people who had planned to travel to Peoria for the beatification would be unable to recover their travel deposits.
She is optimistic, however, that the beatification will occur eventually. Asked what she hoped people would understand about her uncle, Joan said, “I want people to know that my uncle was more than just the man on TV with the big cape — that he was just a human being who loved God, and who appreciated everything in life. It wasn’t all ‘drama’ for him.”
Kathy Schiffer writes from South Carolina.