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Reexamining Archbishop Fulton Sheen's Extensive FBI Dossier

ABC Radio
Wikimedia Commons

It's been about 40 years since the FBI first declassified its cache of documents on Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Like many prominent people of his day, the federal government kept tabs on influential religious leaders like Sheen. The records shed light on some of Sheen's lesser-known personal foibles, some of his more fiery anti-Communist writings, and a warm personal correspondence with the inimitable FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which spanned decades.

Sheen was born in El Paso, Ill. in 1895 and ordained a priest in Peoria in 1919. He later became a famous religious author, newspaper columnist, orator, and broadcaster of "Life is Worth Living." He died in New York City in 1979 and was buried at St. Patrick's Cathedral in that city.

In recent years, Sheen's final resting place was the crux of a bitter legal dispute between Sheen's closest living relative, niece Joan Sheen Cunningham, and the Archdiocese of New York.

Cunningham claimed victory in the protracted court battle this year when New York's highest court ruled in her favor, leading to Sheen's reinternment at the Cathedral of St. Mary's of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria.

The copies of official correspondence from, to, and about Sheen thoroughly documented by the FBI from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s were declassified in 1980, a year after Sheen's death. The dossiers were made available online several years ago.

A recently compiled cache of declassified FBI files on prominent people with Illinois links released by the Chicago Sun-Times offers an opportunity to reexamine this unique perspective on the archbishop.

Sheen and communism

Sheen's stance against communism was well-documented throughout his professional career. His denunciations of the Allied Soviet Union during World War II led to some allegations the bishop was pro-fascist, though the FBI's dossiers do not indicate the agency investigated those charges at length.

Occasionally, Sheen's statements or writings regarding communism would spur an FBI inquiry. For instance, Sheen's allegation in May 1946 that a congressional aide was arrested during a closed hearing after being discovered as a covert Soviet agent was followed up upon and couldn't be confirmed.

A July 1953 dossier noted that Sheen refused to speak or appear at the New York World's Fair in the 1930s unless the American flag was raised to fly above the Soviet flag.

Sheen also gushed about his conversion of Louis Budenz to Catholicism. Budenz was the editor of "The Daily Worker," a Communist newspaper, when he engaged in a series of debates with Sheen over Communism in the 1930s. Several years later, he contacted Sheen to enter the Catholic Church.

Sheen and Hoover's mutual admiration

J. Edgar Hoover was the controversial chief of the U.S. intelligence community for several decades. He was first appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. He occupied the corner office at the bureau and its successor agency, the FBI, until his death in 1972 at age 77.

J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI
Credit Library of Congress Collection
J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI

The pair's years of correspondence began in 1944, when Sheen wrote Hoover to compliment a copy of a speech the FBI director sent to the Catholic monsignor. He invited Hoover to dinner at his Washington, D.C. residence, but Hoover declined, citing a prior engagement.

However, the pair's correspondence continued. Sheen accepted an invitation from Hoover to address the graduating class of the FBI National Academy in June 1953. In a memo sent between FBI administrators, one H.H. Clegg alludes to Hoover's irritation that it took over a week for the FBI to respond to Sheen's letter of acceptance.

The mutual admiration between the two men is keenly reflected in correspondence exchanged in 1958, after Hoover sent Sheen a copy of his book, "Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It." The book was written at the height of the "Red Scare."

"You have built up a tradition towards Divine justice in this country which has been incomparable in the lives of free peoples," Sheen wrote. "The quality of the men who surround you, their excellent philosophy of life have combined to personalize justice in what is called a Department."

Days later, Hoover replied to Sheen's praise.

"I am indeed appreciative of your generous comments, and I want you to know that any success my associates and I may have attained can be attributed to a great extent to the staunch support of good friends such as you," Hoover wrote.

Hoover continued to correspond with Sheen, writing him letters of congratulations when he became the Bishop of Rochester, N.Y., and when he stepped down from that diocese a few years later. He also sent letters expressing his well-wishes to Sheen after the archbishop suffered several hospitalizations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He was included on Hoover's "Special Correspondents List."

An example of the voluminous correspondence sent between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Archbishop Fulton Sheen between 1943 and 1970.
Credit FBI
An example of the voluminous correspondence sent between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Archbishop Fulton Sheen between 1943 and 1970.

The FBI's profile of Sheen

An FBI dossier on Sheen dated July 3, 1953 gives a whimsical look at the archbishop's personal life.

He followed a standard daily routine, rising from bed at 6 a.m. but never arriving at his desk to work until 9 a.m. at the earliest. He used his mornings for creative work, saw callers in the afternoon, and saved reading and research for the evening hours.

The FBI documents note Sheen has "little to no social life." When he did visit friends at their homes, the dossier noted he had a habit of "roam[ing] about the kitchen." He had a noted fondness for chocolate ice cream and angel-food cake. He was also an avid tennis player.

One anecdote recorded by federal agents recalls a dinner where Sheen was asked if he'd received everything he'd wanted for Christmas. He said he hadn't gotten some royal blue pajamas he wanted. The next day, Sheen received 20 pairs. Each man at the dinner party had apparently bought him pajamas, believing they'd be the only ones to fulfill his wish.

Sheen also occasionally drove above the speed limit in his cream-colored convertible.

"It was necessary for him to use the full power of his oratory to talk his way out of a ticket when an enterprising motorcycle cop was about to give one to him," the documents noted.

The dossier also outlines his anti-communist and anti-Marxist leanings.

Efforts to make Sheen a saint

The move of Sheen's remains from New York in July reinvigorated the Diocese of Peoria's efforts to have Sheen declared a saint.

Pope Francis attributed the survival of James Fulton Engstrom of Goodfield to Sheen's intercession. The boy's parents prayed to Sheen after the baby was apparently stillborn in 2010. The newborn later revived and has since grown up healthy.

Sheen is set for a beatification ceremony in Peoria. Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Peoria Diocese said he hopes to hold the ceremony by the year's end, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Sheen's ordination.

Want to know more?

The FBI maintains its redacted files on Archbishop Sheen and a variety of other now-deceased public figures on its website. The Chicago Sun-Times archive contains records on some more recently-deceased public figures of interest to Illinoisans.

Copyright 2021 WCBU. To see more, visit WCBU.

Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.