St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Photo Credit: shutterstock.com

A legal struggle over where famed Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s body should rest, seemingly pitting dioceses of the Catholic Church against one another, will live on.

Although the cleric, today a candidate for sainthood and once host of the Emmy Award-winning television show “Life is Worth Living,” has been deceased for nearly 40 years, a lawsuit launched two years ago by his niece over his remains has been revived by a Manhattan appeals court’s split opinion.

The majority of an Appellate Division, First Department, panel on Feb. 6 overruled the 2016 decision of Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth. Bluth had declared that Sheen’s body should be transferred from a crypt under St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the Peoria, Illinois, church that in recent years had been pushing in the Vatican to have Sheen canonized as a saint. Sheen had been born and first ordained in the Diocese of Peoria, and his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, has said that she believes her uncle would have wanted to be interred in Peoria if he’d known of the diocese’s efforts.

But in opposing Cunningham’s suit, the Archdiocese of New York has argued that Sheen made clear in a will executed five days before his death that he wanted to be buried in New York. The diocese has also pointed out that Sheen was consecrated a bishop in New York City, conducted a ministry there and lived most of his life in the city, including when he died.

Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” was filmed during the 1950s in Manhattan, as well. And by the 1970s he was among the more famous Catholics in the country, known for both his evangelism in the media and his TV show, which had reached tens of millions of viewers.

The majority panel decided to table a resolution of where Sheen’s body will ultimately rest. Currently, his remains are at St. Patrick’s. Instead, Justice Rosalyn Richter, writing for the panel, ruled that an evidentiary hearing must be held in the lower court to help clarify Sheen’s wishes.

She also indicated that Bluth, in siding with Cunningham’s desires and contentions, had given short shrift to an affidavit signed by Monsignor Hilary C. Franco.

Franco, a 1960s assistant and then longtime friend of Sheen’s, testified that on many occasions Sheen had expressed his desire to remain in New York, even after death, Richter wrote.

“The [Bluth] court … too narrowly defined the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen’s wishes,” Richter, joined by Justices Anil Singh and Peter Moulton, said.

She continued, “The affidavits of Monsignor Franco and petitioner [Cunningham] raise issues of fact as to Archbishop Sheen’s wishes that are best explored in an evidentiary hearing.”

“Furthermore, it is unclear if Archbishop Sheen’s direction in his will to be buried in ‘Calvary Cemetery, the official cemetery of the Archdiocese of New York’ evinces an express intention to remain buried in the Archdiocese of New York, or was merely a descriptive term for Calvary Cemetery,” Richter continued. “We also note that Archbishop Sheen had long-standing close ties to New York City … The petition court did not give adequate consideration to these issues, but instead improperly deferred to the family’s wishes, merely because Archbishop Sheen’s remains did not end up in Calvary Cemetery, and without a full exploration of Archbishop Sheen’s desires.”

Bluth had explained in her opinion that Calvary Cemetery was located in Queens. Then she drew a distinction between Sheen’s wish to be buried in that cemetery versus any indication that he wanted to remain somewhere in New York. Moreover, she ruled, since Sheen’s remains ended up at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan—after a former New York archbishop had asked Sheen’s family for permission to place him in the honored crypt—it followed that the family’s current desires, as expressed by Cunningham, should be granted.

“Under these circumstances, where the decedent’s known wishes were not followed,” Bluth wrote, “… the court will defer to the wishes of the family because petitioner has set forth a justifiable, good, and substantial reason for moving Archbishop Sheen’s remains” to Peoria.

In the First Department dissent, Justice Cynthia Kern, joined by Justice Troy Webber, pointed out that Cunningham moved to New York from Illinois when she was only 10, and was “for all intents and purposes, raised by Archbishop Sheen.” Kern further wrote that “where the decedent’s wishes cannot be ascertained, a court must consider the desires of the decedent’s next of kin,” citing Brandenburg v. St. Michael’s Cemetery, 92 AD3d 631, 632 (2d Dept 2012).

She added, “Given the opportunity to testify at an evidentiary hearing, Monsignor Franco would make the same statements he made in his affidavit, which are insufficient to raise an issue of fact as they are vague and merely speculative as to Archbishop Sheen’s burial wishes, as opposed to the clear and concrete statements made in his will that he wanted to be buried in Calvary Cemetery” in Queens.

“If Archbishop Sheen knew of the offer to be buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral and wanted to be buried there or if he merely had a desire to be buried somewhere in New York, he could have expressed such desires in his will,” she also said.

In a statement in response to the First Department’s ruling, Joseph Zwilling, an Archdiocese of New York spokesman, indicated that the diocese was pleased with the majority’s ruling.

Zwilling also appeared to contradict previous reports that had said the Peoria church, St. Mary’s, needed to have Sheen’s body interred there for the Vatican to complete its consideration of him for sainthood.

“It is our hope that the Diocese of Peoria will re-open the cause for the beatification and canonization of Archbishop Sheen,” Zwilling said in a statement issued this week. “There is no impediment to his cause progressing, as the Vatican has told us there is no requirement that the earthly body of a candidate for sainthood reside in a particular place. We offer our support and thanks to the Diocese of Peoria.”

Still, Cunningham, now age 90 and a resident of Yonkers, told local reporters this week that she was disappointed in the majority panel’s decision. What’s more, she told The New York Times, she believes that the best solution would be to divide the body into relics, as has happened before in the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the relics would end up in each church, she said.

Steven Cohn, Cunningham’s lawyer, who runs a litigation boutique on Long Island, did not return a call seeking comment. John Callagy, a Kelley Drye & Warren partner in Manhattan, helped represent the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archdiocese of New York. He could not be reached.