Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Part 4 — Bishop Sheen

October 30th, 2009, Promulgated by Choir

The next day, Cardinal Spellman, more than forty visiting bishops, politicians, friends of the bishop, area clergy of all denominations, packed Sacred Heart Cathedral for the 90 minute installation ceremony. The installation luncheon was held at the old Manger Hotel. Four thousand people attended a civic welcome in the ten-thousand-seat War Memorial. Cardinal Spellman returned to New York immediately after the installation service.

Soon the new bishop was traveling throughout the diocese, visiting institutions and parishes. He traveled to St. Francis deSales Church in Geneva and had a pleasant conversation with assistant pastor, Father Michael C. Hogan. Sheen soon summoned Hogan to Rochester and named him his secretary. Hogan handled a variety of administrative chores and managed appointments, but he acted principally as the bishop’s chauffeur. Sheen brought his personal cook with him from New York and played tennis twice a week and rode a stationary bicycle in his apartment.

Whenever Sheen traveled, he invited people to write to him. They did, and Hogan was overwhelmed with mail, so he and another priest devised form letters to handle the deluge. The people soon caught on.

On the very first day of Hogan’s employment, a fire destroyed St. Philip Neri’s parish, killing the 77 year old priest, Father George Weinmann, who had tried to rescue the Blessed Sacrament, and a 26-year old nun, Sister Lillian Marie SSND, who attempted to help him. Some students had committed arson. Hogan drove Sheen to the scene. The bishop was aghast to learn that the priest had left $7 million in stocks he had forgotten about and had not made out a ill. The state took most of the money. The tabernacle is today in the renovated Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Sheen offered a series of retreat talks at the Masonic Auditorium on East Main Street, very few people showed up and Fulton was furious. “The whole world comes to hear Fulton Sheen,” he said privately, “except his own diocese.”

As part of his determination to implement the teachings of Vatican II, Sheen sought to create a curia, aboard of counselors to advise him, and he chose to be democratic by asking all the diocesan priests to nominate three priests. He appointed several priests to serve as vicars in administration or in geographical districts. A lay administrative committee had been named to handle financial affairs of the diocese. He appointed a vicar of pastoral planning, vicar of religious education and two territorial (with jurisdiction) vicars. Throughout the diocese, with Sheen’s approval, parishes began founding lay boards of education and lay advisory councils. Sheen changed the name of the Rochester Chancery, which he thought bureaucratic and impersonal, to the “Pastoral Office.” The new bishop meant what he said about democracy in the diocese. Or so it seemed.

Without consulting anyone, Sheen announced the closing of the Most Precious Blood School in Rochester, attended largely by Italians. When Sheen appeared at the new Becket Hall to bless it, a crowd of Italians were waiting for him. Angry people pounded on his car and waved signs. Some shouted “You son of a bitch” and worse. Sheen locked his car doors and would not emerge until the vehicle was safely inside the institution’s garage. The bishop was greatly shaken. He ordered the school reopened the following day.

Sheen had bold plans for the seminary. In time, a number of non-Catholic professors would be hired. At one point, the bishop wrote a letter to eighty of the world’s leading theologians, inviting them to come to teach at St. Bernard’s. A few responded and faculty were hired from Italy, England and Belgium. The regular faculty wondered where the money was coming from. Some faculty members were worried about retaining their jobs.

Later that year, Protestants were hired to teach pastoral and preaching skills. Psychological testing was employed in order to weed out seminarians who might be emotionally or otherwise unfit. A board of seven laypersons – four men and three women – was created to “assist the seminary authorities in the selection of fit candidates for the altar.” The lay board, Sheen said proudly, was the first of its kind in a Catholic seminary in the United States. The seminary rector, Father Joseph P. Brennan and the faculty were not consulted in advance about the lay board. Brennan invited the bishop and the board members to a get acquainted dinner at the seminary. After dinner, Sheen made a few suggestions and then heard a polite rebuttal from faculty members eager to maintain their prerogatives. Sheen was disenchanted by the women during the first meeting, so he invited only men to the next meeting. He never called the board together again. Some clergy began grumbling about his lack of administrative skills.

Sheen changed the name of the faltering St. Andrew’s Minor Seminary to King’s Preparatory Seminary and made it a co-educational high school. Its aim would be the education of leaders, a “spiritual elite.” These raised eyebrows throughout the diocese. Things did not work out, and King’s Prep closed in 1970.

Sheen was vitally interested in the spiritual welfare of his people. He advised priests and seminarians to adopt his Holy Hour practice. He welcomed the Cursillo movement, urged families to read scripture and acts of self-denial. He initiated Home Masses, giving priests permission to celebrate Mass in private homes during evening hours on weekdays. Sheen took the lead himself, saying Mass in the homes of both blacks and Hispanics and afterwards visiting with attendees.

One day, as the bishop was in Wayland. He bought ice-cream cones for about twenty or thirty children when a little girl came up to him and asked him to visit her sister. “Yes, where is she?” asked Sheen. “She’s dead; she is in the undertaker’s parlor.” Sheen and Hogan (his secretary) went to the funeral home and saw the little seven-year-old girl who had been hit by a car. Sheen wrote later, “She looked alive and appeared like an angel.” Fulton consoled the family, telling them that a great good would come from the accident. In time, two conversions resulted from Sheen’s compassion. He later made a special trip from New York to Rochester to baptize one of the converts.

Below is a 1967 picture of Sheen at the St. Joseph House of Hospitality.

Tags: ,


5 Responses to “Part 4 — Bishop Sheen”

  1. Ben Anderson says:

    interesting as always – thanks choir

  2. Dr. K says:


    ~Dr. K

  3. Rob says:

    Well done good sir.

  4. Eliza10 says:

    Thanks for all this history. It really is interesting!

  5. Eliza10 says:

    I want to add that what you wrote about Bishop Sheen got me thinking about pride. It seems almost wrong to contemplate: did Bishop Sheen have a problem with pride? Is it?

    We look at actions and wonder about the state of the heart, while knowing only God can judge the state of the heart. I look at our current bishop’s actions, and make wondering judgements and unspoken conclusions about the state of his heart – all the while reserving that my judgement is incomplete and can be seriously flawed. But it can’t be wrong to examine the life and actions of someone now dead.

    I have so much admiration for Bishop Sheen and all that he said. However at times I have wondered how being a “Prince of the Church”, with postion, power, exclusive education in elite circles and places, fame, and finery wouldn’t tempt one to pride. His idea of an “elite school of leadership” sounds like an idea from where in his heart? And the closing of the Italian parish school without consulting anyone another bad idea. Yet, in both instances he retractred his plans in a timely manner when they were protested – something we cant ever credit Bishop Clark with, as far as I know, no matter how prolonged and vigouorous the protests.

    Back to Sheen, hmm, a personal cook imported from NYC? However, I do not know the context – perhaps that was one of his few indulgences, to give himself time to do the Lords work, and, I don’t know what the cook served – it may not have been gourmet fare but rather perhaps he had a special diet for his health, and keeping he cook was the most expedient way to maintain things. So, I can dream up justifications for that, but for all my creative thinking, I can’t come up with a SINGLE possible justification for the recent million-dollar redo of the current Bishiops quarters (or ANY of his wreckovations, for that matter).

    Perhaps Sheen did struggle with pride, but we all struggle with sin. It seems that in the end and overall, he won such a battle, if in fact he did have it. And also maybe his pride wasn’t personal, but extreme dignity concerning everything with Christ’s Church.

Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-