St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Photo: shutterstock.com

In a fight that has bitterly pitted two Catholic dioceses against each other, a state appeals court has ruled that famed Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s remains must be transferred from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to a cathedral in Peoria, Illinois.

Issuing its second opinion in 13 months in the unique disinterment case, the Appellate Division, First Department has sided with the 91-year-old niece of Sheen based largely on her and a monsignor’s lower-court testimony about Sheen’s beliefs and reverence for sainthood, and on the chance that, after the transfer happens, he will be declared a saint by the Vatican.

Sainthood is considered a church member’s highest honor and proof to Catholics that the person is in Heaven, according to lower-court testimony. And Peoria’s diocese, where Sheen was ordained a priest in 1919, had been working for years toward having him canonized.

But the Peoria diocese halted the process in 2012, arguing that his body had to be in its diocese for the next vital step—beatification—to occur. New York’s archdiocese and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where his remains have been interred in a crypt since 1979, objected. They cited Sheen’s will and his desire to be buried in New York.

In its fairly terse opinion, a First Department panel wrote, “While it is undisputed that burial in a crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a high honor, the testimony of Archbishop Sheen’s family and respondents’ witness Msgr. Hilary C. Franco demonstrates that Archbishop Sheen lived with an even higher intent and purpose in mind, namely to attain Heaven and, if at all possible, sainthood.”

It is unclear whether the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archdiocese of New York, which during nearly three years of litigation have staunchly fought against transferring Sheen’s remains, will seek leave to appeal the First Department decision to the Court of Appeals.

The unanimous panel’s decision affirmed a detailed and eloquently stated 2018 opinion by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth, who’d conducted an evidentiary hearing—upon remand and order by the First Department—that sought to ferret out what Sheen’s wishes would be.

After hearing testimony from his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, and from Monsignor Franco, once Sheen’s close friend and mentee, Bluth wrote that “the testimony … suggested that becoming a saint would allow Archbishop Sheen to accomplish his highest calling—to reach as many believers as possible and to intercede on their behalf.”

“It makes no sense,” she wrote, “given his lifelong devotion to the Catholic Church, that he would choose a location (New York City) over the chance to become a saint.”

The justice also spoke about the “intense animosity engendered by this dispute” over Sheen’s remains, and she knocked back an argument made by the New York archdiocese and St. Patrick’s Cathedral that said the location of Sheen’s remains was immaterial to having him declared a saint.

“That may be true in the abstract but it is not so in the record here: here, the cause [of attaining sainthood] will not go forward until [Peoria diocese] Bishop [Daniel R.] Jenky receives the remains,” she wrote, referring to the reality that Jenky has refused to proceed unless Sheen’s remains are transferred. Peoria’s diocese has reportedly been seeking to exhume Sheen’s body for authentication and has contended that Roman Catholic tradition calls for beatification to occur in the diocese that originated the sainthood cause.

Bluth also admonished both dioceses for apparently putting their own wishes before the greater good of having Sheen possibly made a saint.

“Unfortunately, the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York are both acting as if they care more about the location of the remains than actually advancing the cause,” she wrote. “Luckily, the cause is more important than the location of the remains to Mrs. Cunningham [who had initially objected to the transfer, years ago] and others who loved and believed in Archbishop Sheen. From all the evidence before this court, the cause also would have been more important than the location of the remains to Archbishop Sheen.”

Joseph Zwilling, an Archdiocese of New York spokesman, issued only a short statement in response to a request for comments on the First Department’s Tuesday decision upholding Bluth’s ruling.

“The Trustees of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral disagree with the decision, and its attorneys are studying the decision as they decide next steps,” he said.

He gave no other indication about whether the archdiocese will seek to leave to appeal the decision. The legal battle has stretched on since 2016, when Joan Sheen Cunningham filed an internment petition in Supreme Court.

John Callagy, a Kelley Drye & Warren partner who represents the Trustees of St. Patrick’s and the archdiocese, could not be reached for comment. Steven Cohn, a lawyer on Long Island who represents Cunningham, also could not be reached.

Sheen was among the most famous Catholics in the United States by the 1970s, known for both his evangelism in the media and for the television show, “Life is Worth Living.” He had hosted the 1950s show from Manhattan and it had reached tens of millions of viewers, reports say.

He was also respected and admired by his peers, especially by clergy in Manhattan, where he lived most of his adult life and where he was consecrated a Bishop of New York in 1951.

At the evidentiary hearing before her, Bluth wrote, Monsignor Franco had “testified about his walks to work [in Manhattan] with then-Bishop Sheen, and how a ten-minute walk often took much longer because so many people stopped them on the street.”

“Many people would ask Bishop Sheen to pray for them,” she wrote. “Monsignor Franco testified that Bishop Sheen always honored his promise to pray for them, and that it was his great joy to pray for people, to be an intermediary between man and God.”

The First Department panel of Justices Rolando Acosta, Judith Gische, Barbara Kapnick, Ellen Gesmer and Anil Singh made quick work of explaining why it believed Bluth had come to a sound decision in a difficult case.

“The testimony established the importance of Heaven and sainthood to Archbishop Sheen and his immediate kin, the efforts made by Bishop Jenky of the diocese that encompasses the Archbishop’s hometown of Peoria to promote the cause for his sainthood, and the apparent lack of similar efforts by the New York Diocese,” the panel wrote.

“Supreme Court properly found that there are good and substantial reasons to disinter Archbishop Sheen’s earthly remains,” the justices continued. “This finding was warranted notwithstanding evidence that before his death, and perforce before the cause, Archbishop Sheen expressed a desire to be buried in New York.”

The panel also said that “to the extent respondents [St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archdiocese of New York] argue that the prospect of Archbishop Sheen’s sainthood is speculative and that a disinterment should not be ordered on that basis … the argument is unavailing. The [Bluth] court expressly allowed evidence and argument solely on the issues of the life Archbishop Sheen lived and his beliefs and how these factors would likely inform his wishes with respect to interment.”

Wrote Bluth in her opinion from last June, “Rendering a decision in a disinterment proceeding is a solemn obligation…. Here, the petition seeks to move remains that have been interred for nearly four decades. This is no ordinary request—but this is no ordinary proceeding.”

She also wrote, earlier in the decision, that “it was clear to this court—especially because all sides wholeheartedly agreed—that Archbishop Sheen’s life’s purpose was to serve God and man and particularly the poor. Monsignor Franco even admitted that he hoped Archbishop Sheen would eventually become a saint and even called him a ‘Saint on earth.’”