Fulton Sheen was born to Newton and Delia (Fulton) on May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Illinois. The oldest of four sons, he was baptized Peter in St. Mary’s Church, but soon became known by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton. At his baptism, his mother dedicated him to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a dedication he renewed at his First Holy Communion. This Marian devotion would become one of the hallmarks of his life and ministry.
His parents moved the family to Peoria for the education of their children. From his early days as a student at St. Mary’s Cathedral School and at Spalding Institute, Fulton was known for his outstanding intellect. The seeds of his priestly vocation were nurtured as an altar server at the Cathedral of St. Mary, where he often assisted Bishop Spalding at the altar.
He then attended St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, IL where he excelled as a student, writer, and orator. Turning down a significant scholarship for graduate school, he followed his desire to become a priest and entered St. Paul’s Seminary in St. Paul, MN as a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria. He was ordained a priest on September 20, 1919, in the Peoria Cathedral. At this time he made his famous promise to make a Eucharistic Holy Hour every day, a promise he kept faithfully throughout his life.
After ordination, Fr. Sheen pursued postgraduate studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He then went on to the University of Louvain in Belgium, where he earned the highly respected “Agrégé” degree with outstanding distinction. During this time, he also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, the Angelicum in Rome, and taught theology at St. Edmund’s College near Ware, England.
Fr. Sheen was quickly recognized as a brilliant academic. Fearing that such international fame and success might have filled the young priest with pride, Bishop Dunne, the second Bishop of Peoria, assigned Fr. Sheen to St. Patrick’s a humble inner-city parish in Peoria.
Within nine months, his pastoral dedication had turned St. Patrick’s into a thriving parish. During his time at St. Patrick’s, Fr. Sheen preached his first Christmas Mass in Peoria at St. Mark’s Church and lectured at Bradley University where he is credited for beginning Catholic campus ministry. Having demonstrated his obedience and pastoral zeal, Bishop Dunne soon assigned him to the faculty at Catholic University where he taught for 24 years. Even when Fulton Sheen’s ministry made him an international figure, he would return to St. Patrick’s during his visits to Peoria.
In time, Sheen’s fame and influence as a preacher, writer, and teacher of the Faith began to grow immensely. All forms of media were available to him. In 1926, he began his first radio program from an overcrowded St. Paul’s Church in Manhattan. These talks were broadcast in the New York City area. He later found a national radio audience with his “Catholic Hour” programs (1930-1952), which at its height, reached an estimated 4 million listeners every Sunday afternoon.
One result of Sheen’s zealous media evangelization was that he attracted a large number of converts to the Catholic Faith – from celebrities like Clare Booth Luce and Henry Ford II, to ordinary Peorians. Many, like Time magazine and Pope Pius XII, asked Sheen to give a total number of converts he made. Sheen refused to give such an account, always giving credit to the action of Divine Grace in the soul of a convert rather than any work of his own.
Sheen also maintained an energetic schedule of personal appearances, often traveling across the country preaching parish missions, academic assemblies, and retreats. True to his intellectual roots, he also wrote over 64 books and 65 pamphlets, as well as two weekly newspaper columns. Known to work 19 hours a day, he always remained faithful to his daily Eucharistic Holy Hour.
In 1951, Msgr. Sheen was ordained bishop in the Basilica of Saints John and Paul in Rome and then returned to New York to serve as an auxiliary to Cardinal Spellman, the influential Archbishop of New York. Recognizing the new bishop’s obvious appeal, the Cardinal suggested he take a new approach to evangelization through the use of television. Despite being opposite the very popular Milton Berle, the Bishop’s show “Life is Worth Living” had a viewing audience of over 30 million people and earned him an Emmy in 1952. These shows were generally more ecumenical and reached a large number of non-Catholic and even non-Christian viewers.
Bishop Sheen’s zeal for the Gospel took a new turn in 1950 when he was asked to coordinate the national efforts for the missions as the National Director of the Propagation of the Faith, a position he held until 1966. His popularity was a great asset, helping him to raise huge amounts of money (including his own TV salary) for the support of the foreign missions. He would encourage his “fans” to send in dimes for missions, netting thousands of dollars for the spread of the Gospel. Recognizing that few people could ever travel to the mission fields, he developed a Mission Rosary to unite people prayerfully in the work of missions. Pope John XXIII invited him to co-consecrate missionary bishops in 1960 and 1961.
As one of the greatest American Catholics of the 20th Century, Bishop Sheen zealously embraced the greatest moment of the Catholic life in the 20th century — the Second Vatican Council. He participated in the Council (1962-1965), serving on the Commissions of the Missions. His insights on the missions, as well as the importance of the role of women in the Church, were prophetically farsighted.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Rochester, NY. While only serving for three years, he left a lasting impression on his diocese, implementing programs that would help the faithful to embrace the renewal of the Council. In 1969, at age 75, Bishop Sheen submitted his resignation to the Pope. In his typical light-heartedness, Sheen explained that “I am not retiring, only retreading!” Named titular Archbishop by Pope Paul VI, Sheen spent his last years preaching and writing.
Archbishop Sheen’s missionary zeal did not wane in retirement. He traveled the world preaching missions with special emphasis on the spiritual renewal of the clergy. He preached at the famous Protestant Crystal Cathedral in Orange, CA, and his international appeal was renewed when he preached a Novena in Dublin, Ireland to commemorate the centenary of the birth of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. His public appearances were only limited by his declining health. He endured several surgeries in the last years of his life.
On October 3, 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, he asked to greet Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was seated in the Lady Chapel near the back of the Cathedral – his favorite place to pray. Brought forward to the center of the sanctuary, the Pope embraced the Archbishop and gave a perfect summary of his life, saying, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church!”
Fittingly, Archbishop Fulton John Sheen, a Son of Peoria, died on December 9, 1979, in his private chapel in his Manhattan apartment during his daily Holy Hour.
In the late 1990s, two laymen set about to create the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation for the purpose of pursuing Sheen’s canonization and promoting his legacy. With the encouragement of Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, they brought the Cause to Peoria. In the Fall of 2002, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, officially opened the diocesan inquiry. Shortly after, Pope John Paul II declared Sheen to be a “Servant of God.”
For the next six years, Msgr. Richard Soseman, episcopal delegate, gathered witness testimony from around the world, while commissions of historians and theologians examined Sheen’s life and works. In February 2008, the diocesan investigation was concluded with a formal “Postremo Sessio” in the Peoria Cathedral, and the testimony was sealed and sent to the Vatican Congregation of the Causes of Saints.
The documents of the diocesan inquiry were summarized into two-volumes known as the Positio. Bishop Jenky presented the white-silk bound editions to the Holy Father in May 2011. With historic speed, the theologians, bishops, and cardinals who advise the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints overwhelmingly recommended to Positio to the Pope.
On June 28, 2012, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI recognized the heroic virtues and life of sanctity of Archbishop Sheen, who could then rightly be called “Venerable.”
Considered stillborn on September 16, 2010, after a routine pregnancy, James Engstrom was without a heartbeat for the first 61 minutes of his life. Just when emergency room personnel were ready to call his time of death, his heart started to beat and shot up to a normal level for a newborn. His family had prayed to Archbishop Sheen throughout the pregnancy and asked for his intercession while CPR was performed on James.
At a July 5, 2019 audience with Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis formally attributed this miracle to the intercession of Archbishop Sheen, moving him one step closer to beatification.