New York City, N.Y., Feb 8, 2018 / 03:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s niece has said her uncle’s remains belong in Peoria, but a lawsuit seeking his internment there has been returned to a lower court for further consideration.
“I just hate that this is dragging on and on and on,” Joan Sheen Cunningham said, according to the New York Times.
Cunningham, a Yonkers, N.Y. resident now aged 90, has suggested Sheen’s body be divided into relics.
“Let it go to Peoria for a few months, and then bring back some of the relics to New York and leave some in Peoria,” she said. “It’s just too bad it can’t just be settled without all this fuss.”
In 2016 she filed a legal complaint seeking to have her uncle’s remains moved to Peoria, Ill. Sheen was born in the Peoria diocese and served as an altar boy at its cathedral, where he was ordained a priest in 1919. He served New York City as an auxiliary bishop from 1951-66 before becoming Bishop of Rochester, and retired to New York City before his death in 1979 at the age of 84.
New York State Appeals Court has ruled that a lower court’s decision upholding Cunningham’s lawsuit failed to give sufficient attention to a sworn statement from a colleague of Archbishop Sheen, Monsignor Hilary C. Franco. Msgr. Franco had said that Sheen told him he wanted to be buried in New York and that Cardinal Terence Cooke, New York’s then-archbishop, had offered him a space in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“There are disputed issues of material fact as to Archbishop Sheen’s wishes,” the appeals court said Feb. 6 in a 3-2 ruling. It has ordered “a full exploration” of the archbishop’s desires.
Cunningham has said Sheen had never told her about Cardinal Cooke’s reported offer.
Sheen’s will had declared his wish to be buried in the New York archdiocese’s Calvary Cemetery. Soon after Sheen died, Cardinal Cooke asked Cunningham, Sheen’s closest living relative, if his remains could be placed in the New York cathedral’s crypt, and she consented.
Cunningham has said that Sheen would have wanted to have been interred in Peoria if he knew that he would be considered for sainthood.
The Peoria diocese opened the cause for Sheen’s Canonization in 2002 after the New York archdiocese said it would not explore the case.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI recognized the heroic virtues of the beloved archbishop, who served as host of the “Catholic Hour” radio show and the television show “Life is Worth Living.” He now has the title “venerable.”
Despite the progress of the cause for beatification, the fate of Archbishop Sheen’s body became the subject of an impasse.
Peoria’s Bishop Daniel R. Jenky suspended the beatification cause in September 2014 on the grounds that the Holy See expected Sheen’s remains to be in the Peoria diocese.
The Archdiocese of New York, however, has said that Vatican officials have said the Peoria diocese can pursue Sheen’s canonization regardless of whether his body is at rest there.
In the wake of Tuesday’s decision, both the Peoria and New York dioceses predicted success.
“We believe that Archbishop Sheen clearly stated his intention in his will, written just days before his death, that he be buried in New York, where he conducted his ministry, and where he lived most of his years, including at the time of his death,” the Archdiocese of New York said in a statement.
Msgr. James E. Kruse, vicar general of the Diocese of Peoria, discussed the case in a Feb. 7 update to the priests of the diocese, reported in the diocese newspaper the Catholic Post.
“We are confident that the new hearing and ruling will be completed in short time,” he said. “Please continue your prayers for the success of these legal issues and for the Cause of Canonization for our brother, Venerable Fulton Sheen.”
Msgr. Kruse of Peoria predicted that the future ruling would favor Cunningham’s position. Her attorneys “are very confident the new hearing will end in re-affirming the original ruling,” said the priest, who added that the same judge who sided with Cunningham’s argument will preside at the evidentiary hearing.
New York archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling voiced hope that the Peoria diocese will reopen the beatification cause, the New York Post reports.
Cunningham has praised the efforts of Bishop Jenky to pursue the beatification, arguing this work means he “deserved the honor” of hosting Sheen’s remains.
In addition to his pioneering radio and television shows, Archbishop Sheen authored many books, with proceeds supporting foreign missions. He headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at one point in his life, and continued to be a leading figure in U.S. Catholicism until his death.
Archbishop Sheen’s intercession is credited with the miraculous recovery of a pronounced stillborn American baby from the Peoria area.
In June 2014, a panel of theologians that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints ruled that the baby’s recovery was miraculous.
The baby, later named James Fulton Engstrom, was born in September 2010 showing no signs of life. As medical professionals tried to revive him, his parents prayed for his recovery through the intercession of Fulton Sheen.
Although the baby showed no pulse for an hour after his birth, his heart started beating again and he escaped serious medical problems.