Ending a bitter legal fight between Catholic dioceses over the remains of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, New York’s highest court on Thursday denied a final attempt by New York’s Archdiocese and St. Patrick’s Cathedral to appeal lower court rulings ordering the remains transferred to Peoria, Illinois.
The effect is that famed Archbishop Sheen’s remains, which have been interred in a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral since 1979, will be transferred to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, where local Roman Catholic Church officials have worked for years toward hopefully having him declared a saint by the Vatican.
Sheen was among the most famous Catholics in the United States by the 1970s, known for both his evangelism and for the 1950s television show he’d hosted, “Life Is Worth Living.” He was also respected and admired by his peers, especially by clergy in Manhattan, where he lived most of his adult life.
Much of the three-year battle over his remains and where they should rest focused on what he would have wanted, were he still alive. He came to love New York as an adult, and had asked in a will to be buried in the city. But Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth found repeatedly that attaining sainthood, if it does happen, would fulfill the highest of callings for Sheen.
On Friday, a spokesman for New York’s archdiocese and the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral said in a statement sent to the Law Journal that “in light of the [New York Court of Appeal’s] denial of further appeal, the trustees of St. Patrick and the archdiocese will work cooperatively with Mrs. [Joan Sheen] Cunningham [Sheen’s niece and closest living kin] and the Diocese of Peoria to arrange for the respectful transfer of Archbishop Sheen’s mortal remains.”
The statement also said that “while we did not initiate this matter, the trustees of St. Patrick’s and the archdiocese believed that it was not simply their duty, but a solemn obligation, to seek to uphold Archbishop Sheen’s last wishes, as directed in his will, to be buried in New York—a position held until recently by [the petitioner for transfer] Joan Cunningham herself.”
Steven Cohn, a lawyer on Long Island who represents Cunningham, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
The high state court on Thursday published a short entry stating “motion for leave to appeal denied,” and thus brought to a close a unique disinterment case in which the now-91-year-old Cunningham successfully petitioned the Manhattan Supreme Court.
Twice, Bluth ruled that the remains must be sent to Peoria, so that the long, difficult process of potentially attaining sainthood would continue.
And twice St. Patrick’s and New York’s archdiocese sought to appeal those rulings. In February 2018, they were successful in convincing the majority of an Appellate Division, First Department panel to halt any transfer of the remains and instead order Bluth to conduct an evidentiary hearing aimed at clarifying what Sheen’s wishes would have been.
But after Bluth held the hearing, she again ruled that the remains must shipped away, writing in part that 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.”
Bluth spoke about the “intense animosity engendered by this dispute,” and she knocked back an argument made by the 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,” she wrote, referring to the reality that Peoria diocese Bishop Daniel R. Jenky has refused to proceed unless Sheen’s remains are transferred.
In March of this year, the Appellate Division, First Department—again weighing in—affirmed Bluth’s latest ruling and sided with Cunningham based largely on her and a monsignor’s lower-court testimony about Sheen’s beliefs and reverence for sainthood.
St. Patrick’s and New York’s archdiocese sought leave to appeal that decision. That has now been denied.