NY Court Overturns Ruling That Bishop Sheen’s Body Should Go to Peoria

Asserting that key evidence indicating the bishop wanted his body to stay in New York was disregarded, the state’s Supreme Court Appellate Division instructed a lower court to rehear the matter.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on TV show in 1956
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on TV show in 1956 (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

NEW YORK — The latest decision in the clash over Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s body took another turn Feb. 6, with a ruling from the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division.

The appellate court remanded the case back to the New York Supreme Court for a rehearing, in a decision that represents a substantial setback for the efforts of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, to gain custody over Archbishop Sheen’s mortal remains.

According to the appellate court, important evidence indicating that Archbishop Sheen was aware his body might be buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and wanted it to be buried there was given insufficient weight in the November 2016 court decision ruling that the body should be moved to Peoria, where Sheen was ordained to the priesthood in 1919.

The appellate court’s ruling comes in the context of the appeal filed by the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral against the 2016 court decision that approved the request made by Joan Sheen Cunningham, a niece of Archbishop Sheen, for permission to transfer his body to Peoria. This means that the body will remain interred at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the time being.

“While the case is being sent back to a lower court for a further hearing, we believe that Archbishop Sheen clearly stated his intention in his will, written just days before his death, that he be buried in New York, where he conducted his ministry and where he lived most of his years, including at the time of his death,” Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, said in a Feb. 6 statement.

The official statement added, “It is our hope that the Diocese of Peoria will reopen the cause for the beatification and canonization of Archbishop Sheen. There is no impediment to his cause progressing, as the Vatican has told us there is no requirement that the earthly body of a candidate for sainthood reside in a particular place.”

The Diocese of Peoria, however, insists the cause can’t proceed because of the litigation.

“We regret that further litigation is required and has to continue,” Msgr. James Kruse told the Register. He is the vicar general of the Peoria Diocese, which has been carrying on the cause for the canonization of Fulton Sheen. “We’ve received indication that the civil matter has to be settled before the cause can advance.”

At the same time, he added, “We in the diocese are confident that the new hearing will result in a favorable decision for Joan Cunningham’s petition.”


The Appellate Ruling

In its review and decision, the appellate court noted that the New York Supreme Court had concluded that “it would defer to the wishes of the family,” because no one followed Archbishop Sheen’s wish, stated in his will drafted days before he died, to be buried in New York’s Calvary Cemetery.

But “we believe that a hearing is required because there are disputed issues of material fact as to Archbishop Sheen’s wishes,” the court said, remanding the case back to New York Supreme Court Judge Arlene Bluth for a rehearing.

Specifically, the appellate court declared that the New York Supreme Court failed to give “appropriate consideration” to the affidavit of Msgr. Hilary Franco, who worked for an extended period of time for Archbishop Sheen, and “too narrowly” defined the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen’s wishes.

In his affidavit, Msgr. Franco stated that Archbishop Sheen told him he wanted to be buried in New York City and also that Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York privately had offered him the honor of burial in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

In fact, soon after Archbishop Sheen died, Cardinal Cooke asked Joan Sheen Cunningham, the late archbishop’s closest living relative, if the body could be buried in the crypt, and she consented.

In her own counteraffidavit, however, Cunningham — who said there was “nobody in the world closer to my uncle than me,” and that he was “a second father” to her and she “a daughter to him” — stated that when they discussed his passing, Archbishop Sheen “never told her, or anyone else in the family, of any purported offer to allow him burial at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

Two of the five appellate judges wrote a dissenting opinion, asserting that the lower court “properly granted the family’s request for disinterment and transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s remains.”

“Where the decedent’s wishes cannot be ascertained, a court must consider the desires of the decedent’s next of kin,” stated the dissent, which also noted that “close family members demonstrated good and substantial reasons for the disinterment and transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s remains.”


Further Reactions

The day after the decision, Cunningham told The New York Times that, given the years of efforts of Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, who began the official canonization process for Archbishop Sheen in 2002, after New York chose not to open it, “I think that Bishop Jenky deserved the honor, frankly.”

“I just hate that this is dragging on and on and on,” she told the Times. “Let it go to Peoria for a few months, and then bring back some of the relics to New York and leave some in Peoria. It’s just too bad it can’t just be settled without all this fuss.”

The Archdiocese of New York is not supportive of a bid to divide the body into separately located relics, as has been done with a number of saints in previous centuries. The archdiocese would be willing to allow an examination in New York of the body in an appropriate and reverent way, however, if that’s necessary to collect some relics as part of the cause for canonization.

In its statement, the New York Archdiocese said, “We offer our support and thanks to the Diocese of Peoria, which has done so much to advance the cause thus far, in working towards the much hoped-for day that Archbishop Sheen will be raised to the altars and proclaimed a saint.”

But in the view of the Diocese of Peoria, no progress on the cause can occur before a final court ruling on the dispute. “The issue is in the hands of the law,” said Msgr. Kruse.

And this legal limbo also means a new vice postulator, required because of the recent death of Franciscan Father Andrew Apostoli, can’t be named, Msgr. Kruse added.

Said Msgr. Kruse, “We encourage the faithful to continue to pray for the advancement of the cause and Joan’s success in this litigation.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.