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Looking Back: Sheen was “first televangelist”

March 3, 2019 GMT

When Fulton J. Sheen enrolled in 1913 at St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, no one could have expected that, almost 40 years later, he would be honored with an Emmy Award as America’s “Most Outstanding Personality” on prime-time television. (In 1913, TV hadn’t even been invented yet.)

As a St. Viator undergraduate, the young man from El Paso, Ill., was (in the words of Bourbonnais historian Adrien Richard) “a high-ranking student who had distinguished himself ... as a silver-tongued orator and who had made St. Viator College debating teams famous throughout the ranking universities in the country.”

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In addition to finding his voice at St. Viator, Sheen also discovered his desire to become a Catholic priest.

He went on to study at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, and was ordained in 1919 at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria, the church he attended during his childhood.

He continued his education at colleges in Washington, D.C., Belgium, France and Italy before accepting a teaching position in 1926 at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He would remain on the faculty there until 1950.

His experience in broadcasting began the same year he started teaching. Already recognized as an outstanding preacher, Sheen was approached by a New York radio station and asked to record a series of Sunday-evening sermons during the holy season of Lent.

Four years later, he was invited to be a “summer fill-in” for the host of a nationally broadcast radio program entitled “The Catholic Hour.”

A profile of Sheen displayed on the Catholic University of America’s website notes that, “The audience response was so positive that he was asked to continue as a weekly speaker on the show. From 1930 to 1950 ... (he) presented Catholic teaching in a way that had never been done before. Drawing from the deep well of his faith and scholarship ... he preached the Gospel and showed how it applies to personal moral decisions and the great social issues of the time.”

The radio broadcasts generated a flood of letters, often about 100 per day; many were invitations to give sermons or lectures at various events across the country.

Even though he taught a full schedule of philosophy and religion classes, Sheen traveled extensively to fulfill speaking dates.

One of those speaking dates was Oct. 10, 1939, when he returned to Kankakee County to lecture at the Kankakee High School auditorium.

Only a month earlier, Germany had invaded Poland, setting off what would become World War II.

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At the invitation of a group called the Parents’ Association against Foreign Wars, he spoke before what the Daily Republican-News termed “a fair-sized audience.”

Sheen told the crowd, “There is only one way to avert the scourge of war. The end is with God, but the means is with us. It is by retribution and penance, and a return to things divine.”

In 1950, the then 55-year-old priest left his university teaching post to become the U.S. director for the Catholic Church’s missionary support organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

His career change also involved a relocation: a move from Washington, D.C., to New York City.

The following year brought two additional significant changes in Sheen’s life. On June 11, 1951, he was consecrated as a bishop of the Catholic Church; a few months later, his weekly television program, “Life is Worth Living” began airing on the DuMont Television Network (later, on ABC).

“With his hypnotic gaze, disarming smile and dramatic delivery, Sheen was a natural for television,” notes a website devoted to his life and career. “Airing opposite NBC’s highly popular Milton Berle show on Tuesday nights, Sheen was the only person ever to give ‘Mr. Television’ a run for his money, drawing as many as 10 million viewers.”

Sheen and “Uncle Miltie” (as the popular comedian was known) carried on a friendly verbal rivalry.

Sheen once opened his program by announcing, with a grin, “Good evening, this is ‘Uncle Fultie.’” When Berle jokingly complained that Sheen’s program had “better writers,” the bishop promptly identified his writing team: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

On April 14, 1952, Sheen’s portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine; inside was a lengthy feature article entitled, “Bishop Fulton Sheen, the First Televangelist.”

A year later, he was awarded a prime-time television Emmy as the nation’s “Most Outstanding Personality.” Other nominees for that year’s award included famed newscaster Edward R. Murrow, political figure Adlai Stevenson and entertainers Arthur Godfrey, Donald O’Connor, Jimmy Durante and Lucille Ball.

The “Life is Worth Living” program ended its network television run in 1957, but Sheen revived the format from 1961 to 1968 with a syndicated version entitled “The Fulton Sheen Program.”

In addition to his broadcasting and teaching careers, he also wrote prolifically, publishing 66 books in his lifetime.

Fulton J. Sheen’s health began to fail in the late 1970s; he died Dec. 9, 1979, at the age of 84, and is buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.