Bishop Fulton Sheen: The First "Televangelist"

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Bishop Fulton Sheen

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With his brother Tom (now a Manhattan doctor), Sheen went to Europe to study at the University of Louvain, Belgium. To learn French, they first went to a small resort town where no one spoke any English. Soon afterwards, in a Paris boardinghouse, Sheen met a Frenchwoman who lived on the floor above. In deep distress over the breakup of her home, she told Sheen she was about to commit suicide. Sheen begged her to wait just nine days. She agreed, and for eight evenings Sheen sat with her, talking religion. His French was still so halting that he kept a dictionary open before him. On the ninth day, the woman entered the Church.

Sheen did brilliantly at Louvain; he was the first American to win the Cardinal Mercier prize, awarded once a decade for the best philosophical treatise. In 1925, Louvain granted him the degree (he has eleven others) of which he is proudest—Agrégé en Philosophic (a kind of Ph.D. plus).

He went to Britain for a year to be assistant to the pastor of St. Patrick's, Soho, a poor, drab parish, half-Italian, half-London Irish, with a sprinkling of Chinese. He is still a loved and legendary figure at St. Patrick's. Whenever he goes to London, he preaches there, and the parishioners eagerly look forward to his visits. Said one last week, hoping for another visit this month, "Things seem very confused. Then you have a talk with Bishop Sheen. Then things clear up. Then they grow confused again."

Sheen also taught at London's seminary, St. Edmund's College, where he remembers another promising young priest, Ronald Knox (TIME, Feb. 11). By that time Father Sheen was 30, and already had something of a name. Oxford wanted him to teach philosophy; so did Columbia. Then came the damping orders: home to St. Patrick's, Peoria.

It was a blow, but Father Sheen went to work in St. Patrick's, Peoria, one of the poorest parishes in town. He made his sick calls and administered the last rites, begged for contributions and celebrated Mass. His sermons were so popular that people had to come an hour early to get seats; he drew large crowds from other parishes (which did not make him popu lar with their priests). After nine months, Peoria's Bishop Dunne called Sheen and told him that he was to go teach at Catholic University. "I promised you to them three years ago, but everyone said you'd gotten so high-hat in Europe that you wouldn't take orders any more. But you've been a good boy, so run along." In & Out of the Basement. Sheen be came one of the most popular professors at Catholic University. And his fame grew. Washington hostesses began to consider him a prize catch (he rarely accepted their invitations). He lived in a light, airy house (designed to order for him), startlingly modernistic, but comfortable and efficient. From his study, Sheen faced gently rolling hills through a large picture window; there he did most of his popular writing. For heavier tasks he would move to his "workshop" in the furnace room, piled high with books and papers, where he wrote with his back to the furnace.

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