PEORIA — The Catholic Diocese of Peoria on Tuesday won what it hopes was the final court battle to bring the remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen to Peoria.
In a 5-0 vote, a New York appellate court rejected the latest appeal by the Archdiocese of New York to keep his remains in a crypt below St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The decision is the latest in a lengthy tug-of-war between the New York Archdiocese and the Peoria Diocese over the final resting place for Sheen, who was born in El Paso and ordained in Peoria. The Catholic Diocese considers the move vital in its effort to canonize Sheen.
“We hope that this will be the end with New York,” said Patricia Gibson, attorney for the Peoria Diocese.
Five days before his death, in 1979, Sheen signed a will seeking burial in the Archdiocese’s graveyard, Calvary Cemetery. But the Archdiocese instead sought and won permission from Sheen’s closest living relative, niece Joan Sheen Cunningham, to inter him in a place of honor: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The matter rested quietly until 2002, when the Peoria Diocese began the lengthy process campaigning the Vatican for Sheen’s sainthood. Since 2012, Sheen has been one step — beatification — away from sainthood.
Before beatification, church law calls for the body to be exhumed for authentication. From the Peoria Diocese’s vantage, Roman Catholic tradition calls for beatification in the diocese of the origin of a sainthood effort. In 2014, the New York Archdiocese refused the Peoria Diocese’s request to disinter Sheen. So, in 2016, the diocese filed a suit in New York seeking to move the remains to Peoria, citing new support from niece Joan Sheen Cunningham.
That year, a New York judge ruled the remains immediately could be moved to Peoria. Since then, however, appeals have gone back and forth, with the New York Archdiocese (via the trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral) arguing Sheen wanted to be buried in New York and that the chances of sainthood are purely speculative.
But in a terse ruling handed down Tuesday, the appeals court deemed the Archdiocese’s arguments “unavailing.” Further, the judges said that court testimony indicated Sheen would approve of any process that would aid canonization, including a relocation of remains to Peoria.
“The 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,” the court ruled. “While it is undisputed that burial in a crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a high honor, the testimony … demonstrates that Archbishop Sheen lived with an even higher intent and purpose in mind, namely to attain Heaven and, if at all possible, sainthood.”
Joe Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese, declined to comment at length. He issued just a short statement: “The trustees of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral disagree with the court’s ruling and will have their attorneys carefully review it while deciding next steps.”
Gibson, the Peoria Diocese’s attorney, said the Archdiocese could take the matter to the highest court in New York state, the Court of Appeals — the equivalent of Illinois’ state Supreme Court. However, she said the Court of Appeals does not take on a high percentage of cases, and rarely any on the losing end of a 5-0 appellate ruling.
“Hopefully, this will be resolved soon,” Gibson said.
The Peoria Diocese is preparing to file a disinterment petition in New York so that Sheen’s remains can be properly moved to Peoria as soon as possible. The remains would be buried in a crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 607 NE Madison Ave., the diocesan seat.
Sheen was ordained at St. Mary’s on Sept. 20, 1919. Gibson noted beatification — the last step before sainthood — could occur on or near 100th anniversary of Sheen’s ordination.
“Wouldn't that be a beautiful thing?” she said. “Maybe that was God’s plan.”
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.