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New York and Peoria in Tug of War Over Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Body

Fulton J. Sheen

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen preaches on television. Walter Sanders / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A tug-of-war between two Catholic leaders over the body of legendary Archbishop Fulton Sheen has put the television preacher's sainthood campaign into limbo.

The bishop of Peoria, Illinois, has been building a case to beatify Sheen for more than a decade but suddenly abandoned the cause this week — blaming New York's powerful Cardinal Timothy Dolan for refusing to hand over the remains, which are buried beneath the high altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The New York archdiocese shot back that Dolan opposes the "dismemberment of the Archbishop's body" for the purpose of collecting relics and that Sheen's closest relatives want the remains to stay right where they are.

Flashback: Remembering Archbishop Fulton Sheen 1:25

Even the Vatican office that oversees the creation of saints hasn't been able to resolve the unusually public dispute between New York, where Sheen rose to fame with a TV show that could best Milton Berle in the ratings, and Illinois, where he was born and ordained a priest.

"It's a disgrace to the church," Sheen's niece, Joan Cunningham, said of Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky's demand for the remains.

"He spent a good part of his life in New York. He loved New York and in his will he said he wanted to be buried in New York," she told NBC News on Friday. Sheen died at age 84 in New York City in 1979.

"We feel very strongly that he should stay in New York and I can't understand why his wishes can't be followed. They don't have to move the body to beatify him," she added.

"I think Bishop Jenky is forgetting what the whole purpose of the thing is. It's about becoming a saint. It's not about where the bones are. He just thinks it would be a big drawing card to Peoria and he's overlooking the cause."

"It's a disgrace to the church."

Before the unholy mess, the Vatican had been poised to validate a miracle attributed to Sheen — the inexplicable survival of an Illinois infant who was stillborn after his mother prayed to the late archbishop.

That would have paved the way for beatification, the step before canonization of a saint, which requires a second miracle.

The Peoria diocese said in a statement Friday that Dolan's predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, said that New York was not interested in championing Sheen's cause, passed the baton and pledged to help get the body moved.

"Bishop Jenky was personally assured on several occasions by the Archdiocese of New York that the transfer of the body would take place at the appropriate time. New York’s change of mind took place as the work on behalf of the Cause had reached a significant stage," the diocese said in another statement.

Image: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Daniel Jenky
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Daniel Jenky Getty Images file, Peoria Journa

Peoria described New York's refusal to surrender the remains "shocking" and said Jenky had no choice but to suspend the diocese's efforts.

New York countered that Sheen "expressly stated his desire" to be buried in Manhattan and denied that it ever promised to send his body to the Midwest. In fact, Dolan was hesitant to even exhume the body for the retrieval of relics that could be shared with Peoria.

"Cardinal Dolan does object to the dismemberment of the Archbishop’s body," New York's statement said. "However, if the body is exhumed, there is the strong likelihood that some relics would be present in the coffin, which could be reverently collected without disturbing the body, and then shared generously."

One Catholic commentator said battles over the bodies of the blessed and sainted is an ancient tradition.

"They used to have fights over body parts because they're great tourist attractions. If you had an important saint in your cathedral, that brought a lot of business," said Father ThomasReese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

He said that it seemed likely Dolan, the highest-profile Catholic in the country, would prevail.

"Possession is 9/10ths of the law," Reese said. "I think New York has won because Peoria has rolled up and said we don’t want to carry this over. The question is: Does Rome want to play judge in this thing or will they just sit on it a while?"

New York has offered to take up the cause with approval from the Vatican and Peoria, which has done all the research and documentation to date. Dolan is a lifelong fan of Sheen, said his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.

"I would think a resolution could be found," Zwilling said. "Too many people want this to happen."