From St. Pat's To Peoria: The Journey Of Archbishop Fulton Sheen's Remains On The Road To Sainthood

On November 16, 2016, a judge in New York County granted a petition to relocate the remains of Venerable (formerly Archbishop) Fulton Sheen from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan to St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois. Sheen, one of the first televangelists, was recognized for having lived a life of "heroic virtue" and has been credited with a miracle, two significant steps towards beatification and sainthood. However, his cause for canonization was suspended in 2014 due to a dispute between the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria over the handling of his remains. To break the stalemate, Sheen's niece and longtime aide, Joan Sheen Cunningham, petitioned to have Sheen's remains moved to Peoria, to continue the process for sainthood.

The petition claimed that Sheen would have wanted to have his remains moved to Peoria, as it was the city in which he was raised, ordained as a priest, and where his parents were buried. The petition also claims that relocation of Sheen's remains would aid in his campaign for sainthood. In opposition, the Archdiocese of New York argued Sheen wanted to be buried in New York, as his will had directed burial in another Archdiocese cemetery, Calvary Cemetery.  However, his remains were ultimately buried at the more prestigious St. Patrick's Cathedral with the consent of his relatives and the Archdiocese.

In its decision, the Court noted the long-standing principle that "the quiet repose of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed. Good and substantial reasons must be shown before disinterment is to be sanctioned." Furthermore, the most important factor for a court exercising its "benevolent discretion" are the wishes of the decedent. Here, however, Sheen's will directed that he be buried in Calvary Cemetery, and his wishes were undeniably ignored. Accordingly, the Court held that it would not speculate as to what Sheen would have wanted when his unambiguous wishes were not followed, nor would it take a position on issues of Catholic canon law.

In making its decision, the Court applied a two-part test: (1) did Petitioner demonstrate sufficiently important reasons for disinterment, and (2) did the Archdiocese identify a good reason to deny the request. On the first prong, the Court recognized Petitioner's reasons, enumerated above, as a good and substantial basis for disinterment. In contrast, the Archdiocese failed to show good reason for denying the petition, citing only the generalized desire that Sheen wanted to be buried in New York.  Finding this argument to be mere conjecture, the Court granted the petition, and put Archbishop Sheen back on the path to sainthood.

The Court's full decision can be found here.

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