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America's BishopThe Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen
By Thomas C. Reeves
Encounter BooksCopyright © 2002 Thomas C. Reeves
All right reserved.
A Successor of the Apostles
Between 1846 and 1851, over a million people fled the Great Famine in Ireland and came to the United States. The typical Irish emigrant was under thirty-five, unmarried, poor and unskilled. Although they started at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, the Irish worked hard, saved their money, bought property, and enjoyed rapid social mobility. By the turn of the century, there was a sizable Irish middle class.
Many Irishmen went into politics, eventually running many of the nation's cities. For others, social mobility was achieved through the Roman Catholic Church, the faith of the great majority of Irish immigrants. While the Church in America was cosmopolitan, encompassing worshipers who spoke twenty-eight languages, the Irish quickly moved into positions of authority. In 1900 they constituted no more than 50 percent of the Catholic population in the United States, yet they contributed 62 percent of the bishops. One study showed that from 1850 to 1930 in the Diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, 45 percent of all the clergy were of Irish heritage. In the Diocese of St. Louis, Missouri, where the clergy of German descent outnumbered the Irish, eleven of twelve priests elevated to the episcopacy between 1854 and 1924 were Irish. Some who resented this ecclesiastical domination, like the Germans (who comprised about 25 percent of the Catholics in America by 1900) and the Poles, described the Church in the United States as "One, Holy, Irish, and Apostolic."
Most of the Irish stayed in the cities, but some moved to the Midwest, choosing to farm the fertile soil they found there. Stephen Patrick McCarthy, for example, was born in Tipperary County, saved his money while toiling as a farmhand in Livingston County, New York, and bought a farm near Appleton, Wisconsin. He cleared the land, built a log cabin, married a local girl from Bavaria and taught her to speak English. They had ten children and the family prospered. The third child, Tim, would start his own farm in the mid-1890s on 142 acres purchased from his father. The fifth child born on that farm would be named Joseph Raymond McCarthy, the future senator.
Many Irish farmers could also be found in neighboring Illinois. Peter Sheen, born three miles south of Dublin, came to the Midwest before the Civil War. He married Melissa Robinson, who was born on a farm in Rising Sun, Indiana, on the Ohio River, and was probably of English extraction. The couple owned their own farm by the time the eighth of their eleven children, Morris Newton Sheen, was born in Peoria County, Illinois, in 1863. Newt, as he became known, was short and slim, usually rather quiet, friendly, strong-willed, highly intelligent, hard-working, and extremely frugal. He had only three years of formal schooling, but his native abilities and a fierce determination to succeed soon led to modest prosperity.
A son described him as "an agriculturist and inventor, a farmer with a pronounced mechanical bent." One of his later inventions was a "shocker," a machine that would pick up bales of oats and stand the shocks on end.
Peter Sheen had given up the Catholicism of his ancestors when he came to the United States, and Newt did not join the Church. A brother, Daniel Sheen, would become a law partner of the famous agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll. (Fulton J. Sheen said later that while Daniel was not himself an agnostic, he was not a Catholic either.)
In his early twenties, Newt married Ida Clara Von Buttear, a Protestant of German descent and a native of Newark, Ohio. At nineteen, in 1886, she gave birth to a daughter, Eva Natalie Sheen. A few years later Ida died, and subsequently Newt, who now owned a farm near the tiny agricultural town of Minonk, Illinois, married Delia Fulton. The twenty-nine-year-old bride had been raised on a farm in Kickapoo, Illinois, slightly to the northwest of Peoria. Newt joined the Church in order to wed Delia, and he quickly absorbed much of her intense piety and devotion to the Catholic faith.
Ida's Protestant parents then went to court to protect their granddaughter from "popery." They won their case and legally adopted Eva. The girl appears in a few early Sheen family photos, but was soon virtually forgotten by the family in the Peoria area. Raised by Newt's brother Andrew, she eventually married and had five children. Few outside the Sheen family would ever know that Fulton had a Protestant half-sister. He never mentioned her or her mother publicly. Mary Baker, a close friend of Sheen's for fifty-one years, learned about Eva from one of Fulton's brothers.
Delia was the third oldest of seven children and the only girl born to Irish immigrants John and Mary Fulton. (Delia's mother and grandmother were from County Roscommon.) The young woman, plain and dark-haired with deep-set eyes that her firstborn would inherit, had finished the eighth grade, and she devoted herself almost entirely to domestic pursuits. A nephew would later describe "Auntie Dee," as she became widely known, as "laid back, cordial, quiet, sociable" and an expert cook who made "fabulous meals." A cousin would remember her as "quiet, wonderful, reserved.... She was close to a saint and much loved." A granddaughter recalled a dignity and elegance about Delia, who was articulate and carried herself well. "She was very, very saintly." Neighbors later remembered Mr. and Mrs. Sheen with great fondness; said one, "Everybody in El Paso loved them."
By the time their first child arrived, the Sheens had moved from the farm to the nearby town of El Paso, where Newt and his brother Andrew ran a hardware store at 25 Front Street, in the heart of the main business block. The family lived in a small apartment over the store with a view of the street, paved with red bricks, and the single-track railroad that ran parallel to it. There on May 8, 1895, Peter John Fulton was born, and named after his two grandfathers. Four days later, he was baptized at St. Mary's Church in El Paso.
The infant Peter quickly distinguished himself by his almost incessant crying; a babysitter later recalled that "he really had a pair of lungs." One Sunday when Peter was about two, he started to cry while the family, accompanied by the babysitter, was riding in a surrey. The din became such that Newt said to the babysitter, "Marie, take him out of the surrey and prop him up against that tree over there and we'll pretend to drive off without him to see if that won't stop him." The trick worked-temporarily. For years, relatives and the family doctor, when referring to Peter, would say, "Oh, this is the boy who never stopped crying." Sheen later learned that he had suffered from tuberculosis as an infant, no doubt the cause of his perpetual misery.
The hardware store, along with much of the business section of El Paso, burned down when an errand boy, seeing his father come down the street, ditched his lighted cigarette under the stairs and ignited a fifty-gallon can of gasoline. Newt then moved his family to a farm he inherited from his father. When Peter was five, the family moved to Peoria in order that the youngster might be enrolled in St. Mary's, the local parochial school; both Newt and Delia were committed to giving their children as much education as possible. Newt made a living by managing two farms, each about thirty miles from the city. Peter's first brother, Joseph, arrived in 1898. Then came Thomas in 1902 and Aloysious in 1908. The family's first home in Peoria, at 111 Seventh Street, had eight rooms, to provide space for the boys and for Delia's parents, who visited and lived with them on occasion.
No matter where they lived, the Sheens were devout Catholics. Regular church attendance, parochial schooling, grace before meals, the nightly Rosary, and frequent visits by clergy were part of the family routine. "Our family life was simple and the atmosphere of our home Christian," Sheen recalled. A relative remembered Delia reading the family Bible, inherited from her mother, to young Peter.
Such everyday observances were not at all unusual. The family Rosary was a practice held up as an ideal for Catholics throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and was especially prevalent among the Irish, whose homes were often decorated with holy pictures and statues as perpetual reminders of their Catholic faith. The mother's role as religious educator and moral guide, a role Delia eagerly embraced, was a common theme in the literature, both Protestant and Catholic, of the nineteenth century.
The religious atmosphere in the Sheen home made a profound impact on the oldest son, particularly his mother's veneration of the Virgin Mary. He later wrote, "When I was baptized as an infant, my mother laid me on the altar of the Blessed Mother in St. Mary's Church, El Paso, Illinois, and consecrated me to her. As an infant may be unconscious of a birthmark, so I was unconscious of the dedication-but the mark was always there. Like a piece of iron to the magnet, I was drawn to her before I knew her, but never drawn to her without Christ."
When Peter was five and a half years old, he enrolled in the first grade at St. Mary's School, operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. This is when his first name was changed. Whether his grandfather did it, as described in Sheen's autobiography, or whether he himself was responsible, as other accounts have it, Peter became Fulton.
He later explained that his crying as a baby had so irritated his mother that she often sent him to her own mother's home, "where I got to be known as Fulton's baby." Then Fulton as a first name stuck.
While no school records for the time exist, Fulton would be remembered at St. Mary's as exceptionally bright and studious. In fact, all of the Sheen boys were intellectually gifted. Tom had a photographic memory, Fulton's was at least semi-photographic, and Joe and Al were thought by family members to be highly intelligent. A woman who knew the Sheens well said about Fulton, "Seems to me, he was always reading." He excelled in arithmetic and strove to be a leader in his class. A fellow student recalled that Sheen was not only "a little better than the rest of us in his studies" but also "just a little more devout."
In Fulton's first year at St. Mary's, a nun suggested that students put at the top of every page the initials J.M.J., standing for a dedication to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For the rest of his life, Fulton Sheen would inscribe those letters at the top of most of the pages of his writings and always on the blackboard during his television programs. (This was by no means a novel practice. In Poland, Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, would use the same initials on pages throughout his life as a student and writer.)
When he was about eight, Sheen began serving regularly as an altar boy at massive St. Mary's Cathedral, not far from the school, where his family regularly worshiped. He was often at the side of Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, the dynamic first bishop of Peoria who presided over a diocese that embraced 18,000 square miles and, at his consecration in 1877, a Catholic population of 45,000. During his tenure in office, which ended in 1908, he built 140 churches, 58 schools, numerous charitable institutions, and St. Mary's Cathedral. He tripled the number of priests in the diocese in order to meet the needs of a Catholic population that had also increased threefold. Spalding was a founder of the Catholic University of America and leader of the Irish Catholic Colonization Association (which encouraged Irish immigrants to settle on farms in the West). A great orator and intellectual, he was a major figure in the American Church during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
When confirmed at age twelve, Fulton dedicated himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the end of his life, he wrote, "My first Communion book with its mother-of-pearl cover contained the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, which I began reciting every night as a boy and have continued to this hour." By the time of his confirmation, Sheen said, he had "a very conscious vocation" to the priesthood. He did not mention it to his parents, but later learned that they had long been praying for his vocation. Even as a small boy Fulton, at his proud mother's request, would entertain relatives with spiritual talks he had prepared. His brother Joe later wrote, "To my knowledge Fulton never announced his decision or intention to become a priest. It seemed to be an accepted fact by our family." Fulton later remembered that as a boy he was shocked at the dinner table when a relative dared question the wisdom of a position taken by the Pope. He wrote in his autobiography that his spiritual calling "emerged in the earliest recollections of childhood."
Fulton was clearly influenced toward the priesthood by the priests and nuns he encountered in church and in the schoolroom, and by his experiences as an altar boy; but vital to the decision was the love and discipline he experienced at home. Of Newt, Fulton once wrote simply, "My father was the head of the household as I grew up." Newt sometimes spanked his boys for good cause, and later Fulton would often opine, "There is nothing that develops character in a young boy like a pat on the back, provided it is given often enough, hard enough and low enough." In Children and Parents, he wrote with a smile that "factors contributing to juvenile delinquency have been safety razors which have dispensed with the razor strap, and garages which have done away with the woodshed. To borrow shipboard terminology, spanking is known as 'stern' punishment. It is a form of depressing one end to impress the other end. It takes much less time than reasoning and penetrates more quickly to the seat of wisdom."
Delia, for her part, provided the family's sense of order. Joe Sheen later wrote, "My mother, very humble and never speaking ill of anyone, saw to it that we'd always be on time for Mass." But Delia's influence went far beyond that for Fulton: she provided him with a lifelong model of Catholic motherhood. As he wrote in Way to Inner Peace, "The best influences in life are undeliberate, unconscious; when no one is watching, or when reaction to the good deed was never sought. Such is the long-range influence of a mother in a home; fulfilling of daily duties with love and a spirit of self-sacrifice leaves an imprint on the children that deepens with the years." In the same book, Sheen explained his understanding of the difference between a Christian mother and father, making undeclared but unmistakable reference to his own family:
... a man governs the home, but the woman reigns in it. Government is related to justice and law; reigning, to love and feeling.
Excerpted from America's Bishop by Thomas C. Reeves Copyright © 2002 by Thomas C. Reeves. Excerpted by permission.
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