Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Bishop Sheen – Part 3

October 23rd, 2009, Promulgated by Choir

On October 26, 1966, Pope Paul VI officially named Fulton Sheen bishop of Rochester. It was shocking, front-page news. Sheen was 71 and lacked parish and administrative experience. He was now to leave the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, where he had been a striking success.

Cardinal Spellman had ended the more than ten years of intense personal struggle by finally banishing his famous adversary from the Archdiocese of New York. Rochester was the revenge that Spellman had promised all those years ago. Once Vatican II was over, Spellman began to think seriously about evening the score.

Spellman knew that removing his antagonist would not be easy. Fulton was highly popular with Vatican Propagation officials due to his fund-raising abilities, and he was know to be on excellent terms with Pope Paul VI.


Sheen was summoned to Rome and there was given his choice of several positions. He later told a priest he was offered two archdioceses and five dioceses. He selected Rochester, no doubt because of its close proximity to New York City.

Rochester was a good choice because it was ripe for change. Bishop James E. Kearney was nearly eighty-two years old and had led the diocese since 1937. To pave the way for Sheen, Spellman quietly had the Vatican, on March 9 (a month before Fulton was summoned to Rome), transfer the auxiliary bishop of Rochester, Lawrence Casey to Paterson, New Jersey. Bishop John Joseph Boardman, who had accepted the position in Paterson three days earlier, found the offer retracted. Spellman had a long acquaintance with both Kearney and Casey, and knew that Kearney was highly dependent upon his young auxiliary. Once Casey was gone, Kearney would retire willingly.

Just over two weeks after Spellman announced is own continuation in office, he called a press conference at his residence to announce Sheen’s appointment to Rochester. Spellman declared, “Just as every priest looks forward to the day when he can be a pastor, so I am sure, every bishop dreams of having a diocese of his own- not because of worldly ambition, but simply because a bishop by calling is a shepherd, and a shepherd seeks a flock.” Fulton claimed he had first learned of the appointment two days earlier, saying, “I am a soldier in the army of the church. The general has told me to go to Rochester and I love it.” He added, “I am a lover of souls, and in Rochester I will be even closer to priests and people.”


Fulton fed the media more blarney about his new position, claiming that Spellman told him he had not known of the appointment beforehand. Sheen promised to implement the reforms of Vatican II quickly. “It will be a pastoral administration,” Fulton said, prompting the reporter to add that the bishop was “apparently all set to remold Rochester into a demonstration diocese of his church in America.”

Spellman, the auxiliary bishops of the archdiocese, and nearly 3,000 worshipers were at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 11 to hear Sheen give his farewell sermons. Whatever bitterness he felt was thoroughly disguised. Nothing of the rancor between the two men surfaced in the media. But Msgr. George A. Kelly, who had worked closely with Spellman for many years, said later that it was common knowledge among insiders that the cardinal had pulled the strings to get Sheen sent to Rochester in order to prevent the bishop from becoming his successor.


Bishop James Kearney, who had guided the diocese through World War II, the peak of the Cold War, and now into the revolutionary 1960s, was much beloved. He was a good speaker with a lively Irish wit, a genial civic leader, a spiritual guide intensely devoted to Mary, and a skilled brick-and-mortar man. Between 1950 and 1965 he established 22 new parishes. By the end of 1966, the diocese had 13 diocesan or private high schools within its boundaries, with 10,350 students.

Another change affecting the diocese was a shift in the area’s ethnic composition. Blacks and Puerto Ricans had been moving into the area in sizable numbers since the 1950s. In April of 1964, a census showed 33,492 non-whites in Monroe County, almost all of them living in the city of Rochester. St. Bernard’s Seminary had no black students. The number of black Catholics was small. Sensitive to the civil rights movement, a Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) of Rochester, a lay organization, was created in 1960, to uphold the condemnation of racial discrimination issued by the American bishops in 1958.

The majority of the Puerto Ricans were Catholic, and as early as 1954 the diocese had begun taking steps to assist them. In 1963, a Catholic family opened the St. Martin de Porres Center to do settlement work among Puerto Ricans, in cooperation with Rochester Catholic Charities. Two Spanish-speaking priests were hired, and several diocesan priests and seminarians learned Spanish.

Still, the diocese as a whole was know widely to be conservative and self-satisfied. St. Bernard’s Seminary was known as “the Rock,” one of the strictest, most intellectually demanding, and most conservative seminaries anywhere.

Sheen’s formal arrival was on December 14, 1966. He said, “I have an ardent desire to spend myself and to be spent, to get my arms around Rochester.” Sheen spent his first evening in the dicoese at St. Bernard’s Seminary with the students. He told them, the roots of the diocese were in its seminary. One student, Joe Hart, later remembered how Sheen paused and started “for perhaps found seconds, that seemed like forever” when you were being introduced. It was as though he were looking through you, Hart said later.

To be continued with the installation. I hope you all are enjoying these installments.

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4 Responses to “Bishop Sheen – Part 3”

  1. Ben Anderson says:

    yes, enjoying. Thanks for taking the time to write these up.

  2. Mary Kay says:

    Thanks for writing these posts, as always, enjoyable and informative.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Very educational. I enjoy biographys. Do you have one you would reccomend on Bishop Sheen?

  4. Yes, I would recommend "America's Bishop", which is where I got most of the material for this book.

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