Honoring Archbishop Sheen’s Desire to be Buried in New York

A longtime associate of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen explains why the Servant of God arranged to be buried in New York City, and why his body rests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral today

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1952
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1952 (photo: Photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, by a 3-2 majority, made a big decision Tuesday with regard to the sad and indeed scandalous tug-of-war between Catholic dioceses over the relics of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, my friend, mentor and spiritual father.

The Court reversed a Nov. 17, 2016 decision by Justice Arlene Bluth of the Supreme Court’s New York County Petition Court that had granted the request of Archbishop Sheen’s niece to translate his relics from underneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to a shrine being built in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois.

It ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held to determine Archbishop Sheen’s wishes with regard to where he wanted to be buried, which it said is the “paramount factor a court must consider in granting permission to disinter.”

And when that yet-unscheduled evidentiary hearing is held, I’m convinced that the court will find that Archbishop Sheen is indeed buried where he wished to be interred and that there’s no evidence at all that he would have wanted to be buried in Peoria or anywhere else in the world.

I say this with confidence because I talked to him about the subject on several occasions.

I am the last surviving member of the “household” of Archbishop Sheen. Since bishops do not have children of their own, they generally form a spiritual family around them — informally called their “household” — which involves their priest secretaries, the religious sisters perhaps who staff their residence, and other close collaborators, who often are closer to them than their siblings, nieces and nephews, since the members of their household are those who have lived with them and have become like their spiritual sons and daughters.

I first got to know Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1959 and remained close to him for the remaining 20 years of his life. I was Archbishop Sheen’s assistant at the national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in New York from 1962-1967 and also served as his peritus or theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council. During this time, we lived together at his residence located at 109 East 38th Street in Manhattan.

When he was named the bishop of the Diocese of Rochester in 1966, I accompanied him there to help him in his transition, and then, after a brief assignment at Our Lady of Victory in Mount Vernon, in 1967 I was called to serve at the Apostolic Delegation in Washington D.C., and from there, for the next 26 years, in the Vatican.

Archbishop Sheen and I remained close friends and regularly corresponded until the end of his earthly life. I had intended to write some memoirs of my life with the Archbishop for a long time and finally in 2014, based on our correspondence — I treasure over 100 of his handwritten letters to me — and our long friendship, I published a book entitled Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend.

We spoke several times about “last things,” and he told me quite unambiguously that he wanted to be buried in New York. As the retired bishop of Rochester, it would have been expected for him to be buried with the other deceased bishops of that diocese. As a native of El Paso, Illinois, he could have chosen to be buried with his parents in the family plot. Instead, and notably, he wanted to be buried in the Big Apple. To this end, he had purchased a burial plot in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, the official cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York, which is operated by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s.

During conversations, however, at his apartment in New York after he retired from Rochester — whenever I was back in New York I would never miss the chance to visit him — he would tell me with joy that Cardinal Terence Cooke had verbally proposed that he could be buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a privilege accorded normally only to deceased Archbishops of New York by custom and a few other notable people by exception.

Some might ask, as Justice Bluth did in her now overturned 2016 decision, why Archbishop Sheen, in the will he executed five days before his passing, mentioned St. Patrick’s as the place for his funeral but “Calvary Cemetery, the official cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York,” as his place of burial. I think the reason is somewhat clear to anyone who knew Archbishop Sheen well or has a sense of Church decorum.

For him to have declared in his will that he wished to be buried in St. Patrick’s would have been, in ecclesiastical circles, to say the least presumptuous — since it’s only by exception that non-archbishops of New York are buried there — and therefore it’s something that a dignified and humble man like him would never have done. For the same reason, he didn’t even suggest it as a hypothetical, lest there be the slightest semblance of posthumous pressure on Cardinal Cooke or anyone else.

Knowing Cardinal Cooke, however, Archbishop Sheen fully trusted that His Eminence would fulfill the pledge he had made about the most generous “upgrade” in burial location. And Cardinal Cooke did, approaching Archbishop Sheen’s family, after his death, and formalizing what Archbishop Sheen had told me the two Churchmen had previously discussed.

I attended his funeral and interment in the crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and am of the opinion, based on my many conversations with him and on our friendship, that a permanent transfer of his remains to Peoria would clearly violate his intention to be buried in New York.

He loved New York. He loved St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He loved preaching from that pulpit. He loved how St. Patrick’s puts into stone his “solicitude for all the Churches,” what the Second Vatican Council I attended with him said every bishop must have. He loved that Catholics and non-Catholics from all the missionary countries he helped during his service at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith come to visit St. Patrick’s. He loved that every day tens of thousands enter St. Patrick’s to be strengthened for their journey of faith through prayer, attending Mass, which was the center of his life, adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament before whom he would daily spend the “best hour” of his day, and going to confession to receive the mercy he loved to proclaim and dispense.

In short, Archbishop Sheen was honored by the offer to be buried at St. Patrick’s, desired it, and thanks to Cardinal Cooke’s magnanimity and goodness, got his wish.

Catholics who venerate his memory, whether in New York, Peoria or anywhere, should do so first by honoring that choice. Thankfully the appellate justices recognized that Archbishop Sheen’s wishes are the “paramount factor a court must consider in granting permission to disinter.”

There’s no evidence whatsoever, on the other hand, that Archbishop Sheen wanted to be buried in Peoria.

In the legal documents filed in 2016 petitioning the court to order a transfer to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, lawyers for Mrs. Joan Cunningham, Archbishop Sheen’s niece, noted that the future archbishop grew up in Peoria, his parents are buried there, the majority of his relatives live there, and he received his first Communion and was ordained there.

That’s all true — and no one knew those facts better than Archbishop Sheen. He could have easily and freely chosen to be buried there for any or all of those reasons. But as his will shows, he unequivocally chose to be buried not in Peoria but in New York.

The petition for a transfer likewise notes that there’s a shrine being built in St. Mary’s to house his remains if they are translated and asserts that if Archbishop Sheen “knew during his lifetime that he would be declared a Roman Catholic Saint, it would have been his wish to be interred at St. Mary’s Cathedral.”

Not only is there no evidence whatsoever for such a claim, but if the archbishop clearly didn’t want to be buried in Peoria upon his death but rather in New York, why would he have ever wished for his remains to be disinterred and moved to Peoria later?

I am very happy that the appellate justices recognized that in Justice Bluth’s 2016 decision, she “failed to give appropriate consideration to the affidavit of Monsignor Franco and too narrowly defined the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen’s wishes.”

It added, “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.”

The archbishop, it continued, “had long-standing close ties to New York City. He lived in New York for 25 years, hosted his radio and television shows from there, was consecrated a bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, and preached at St. Patrick's Cathedral and other New York churches. The petition court did not give adequate consideration to these issues, but instead improperly deferred to the family's wishes, merely because Archbishop Sheen's remains did not end up in Calvary Cemetery, and without a full exploration of Archbishop Sheen's desires.”

Even though Archbishop Sheen’s wishes are the “paramount factor” according to the court, what about his family’s wishes?

The Court notes that back in 1979, Archbishop Sheen’s niece, Joan Cunningham, assented to Cardinal Cooke’s formal invitation to bury him underneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s. When the Diocese of Peoria first started to ask for the body to be transferred in 2005, she strongly and publicly reiterated her support for him to stay where he was in the crypt of St. Patrick’s. It’s impossible for me to believe that she would have ever done either if she thought by doing so she was violating her uncle’s desires.

Why did she suddenly change in 2014 and eventually petition the New York Supreme Court for her uncle to be transferred to Peoria? I wasn’t present when she decided to file a motion, but I can venture a plausible reason as to why she might have changed course.

It has been regularly claimed that Archbishop Sheen’s beatification process cannot go forward unless Sheen’s relics are moved from New York to Peoria. That is absolutely untrue. Relics are indeed required for a beatification ceremony because during the liturgical rite, the new beatus’ relics are solemnly brought forward to be venerated. The relics required, however, are not what the Church calls “first-class” relics like the person’s hair, blood, or other parts of his body; “second-class” relics, like clothing or things the person used, suffice. And the Diocese of Peoria already abounds in second-class relics of Archbishop Sheen, many of them on display in their beautiful museum dedicated to his honor in the diocesan headquarters.

If the full transfer were indeed necessary for the beatification to take place, it’s certainly understandable why Mrs. Cunningham, at nearly 90 years old and desirous of seeing her uncle raised to the altars, might have changed her mind. At 85 years old myself, the time I have to witness my friend beatified is likewise getting more urgent.

But the reason the cause has been suspended is not because of the failure to transfer the remains; it is rather because of Peoria’s unilateral decision to halt the process until it obtains the transfer of the late archbishop’s body.

The other argument frequently put forth for the translation of Archbishop Sheen’s remains is that Cardinal Edward Egan, former Archbishop of New York, promised Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky in 2002 that he would permit the transfer when the Diocese of Peoria took on the responsibility for promoting the cause. No evidence has been produced that such a commitment was ever made.

Nevertheless, the Justices of the appellate division made clear that even if such a promise had been made, “this alleged assurance by Cardinal Egan has no relevance to the central issue presented here, namely, the wishes of Archbishop Sheen.”

And those wishes, to be buried in New York — not in Peoria, or Rochester, or Rome or anywhere else — are plain, something that I think will be conclusively demonstrated when the evidentiary hearing mandated by the appellate court takes place.

And I hope that once that issue is settled, Peoria will reverse its autonomous decision to suspend the cause so that, God-willing, and through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, we will be able speedily to celebrate Sheen’s much-awaited beatification in Peoria and then people from all over the world will be able to venerate Blessed Fulton J. Sheen at his beloved St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Msgr. Hilary Franco was an assistant to Archbishop Fulton Sheen at the National Office of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith and expert adviser to him at the Second Vatican Council. He served for 26 years in the Vatican and 19 years as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York. He is the author of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: Mentor and Friend.