The Tomb of Archbishop Sheen: Cathedral of St. Mary (Peoria, Illinois)

Tomb of Bishop Sheen

One of the most important new pilgrimage destinations in the United States is the final resting place of the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, located since 2019 at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois.  Sheen is entombed in a side alcove chapel on the left of the nave.  It is well worth a visit, a place of grace and miracles.  Hic locus sanctus est.    

Final resting place of Bishop Sheen

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the greatest veneration has always been shone for persons and places which have been rendered sacred by manifestations of the divine power.  It is customary for the faithful to visit and touch reverently such places, to kneel and pray before them.  I encourage Catholics to visit here on their next summertime road trip.  I had the privilege of praying here last year and was most impressed also by the  Archbishop Fulton Sheen Museum that is located just down the street at the Spalding Pastoral Center, a new building built by the diocese. 

Painting of Monsignor Sheen

1930s retable with icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Sheen is our American saint.  What St. John Henry Cardinal Newman was for the English, Fulton Sheen is to Americans.  His voice preaching the Gospel was the first religious voice to be heard by millions with the advent of radio.  Similarly with TV, he was the first "televangelist" seen on prime-time TV, broadcast to the nation, preaching the same saving Gospel to millions.  His message resonated with unparalleled effectiveness.  Many of our parents grew up watching him on TV all through the 1950s.  In his lifetime he wrote 66 books and was second to none in his wit, wisdom, and ability to make converts.  He was both a philosopher and theologian, one of the most eloquent speakers and writers of the twentieth century.  

St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria

Tomb of Bishop Sheen in Peoria

Since 2019 Sheen is entombed in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (also known as St. Mary's Cathedral), dedicated in 1889.  This is the same church he served Mass in as a boy and where he was ordained priest in 1919.  His first assignment was a nearby church, St. Patrick's, just a few minutes drive on the other side of town.  Over the years Sheen came back to Peoria for periodic visits on his way to visit his parents and preach retreats at other locations throughout the country.  Another saint to visit the Cathedral was Mother Teresa who came in 1995, two years before her passing.   

Timeline of Bishop Sheen's life

A Chicago architect known as Casper Mehler designed the present cathedral, finding inspiration in St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC.  The cornerstone was laid in 1885 by Bishop John Spalding, the first bishop of Peoria.  Construction was completed in 1889.  The exterior is composed of Anamosa limestone.  The church spires rise to a height of 230 feet.  The bishop's mansion next door was completed in 1887, with matching stone exterior.  Below in the photo is what the original altar looked like when Sheen was ordained in 1919; it was later removed during a 1930s renovation.

St. Mary's Cathedral, intricate Gothic altar

Below is what the new 1930s altar looked like at the time it was installed, and how it looks today.  

St. Mary's Cathedral, 1930s altar and today

In the sanctuary is a chiaroscuro painting of the crucifixion scene that is built into the reredos frame.  The image was painted in 1873 by the Spanish artist Yzquierda.  The painting had been purchased by Bishop Spalding and is a rare piece that survived the original cathedral that was demolished in 1898.  Needless to say, the painting is a historical piece that witnessed the priestly ordination of Fulton Sheen.

St. Mary's Cathedral, detail on ceiling and windows

Over the years many changes and renovations have been made in the interior of the cathedral.  The sanctuary has been altered and does not appear exactly as it did on the day of Sheen's ordination.  The most recent renovation (2014-2016) was a triumph, greatly improving the interior with a symphony of Neo-Gothic color, light, and splendor.  This restoration was thanks to the Daprato Rigali Studios of Chicago (photos here).  The ceiling was set aglow with a starry sky the length of the nave, with intricate stenciling and updated interior lighting.  The church was thus enhanced with a fresh new interior splash of color.   

St. Mary's Cathedral, location of the priestly ordination of Bishop Sheen

On June 27, 2019, the remains of Bishop Sheen were disinterred from St. Patrick's Cathedral where he remained since his death in 1979.  They were transferred to a side alcove chapel of St. Mary's cathedral, placed in a new marble monument.  Above the tomb is a gold-leafed gilt-wood retable frame holding an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  She is the patroness of the chapel and since 1930 also the patroness of the diocese.  The icon was solemnly enthroned in the cathedral in 2007 on the 130th anniversary of the arrival of the first bishop, Bishop Spalding.  That same year the diocese was rededicated under the patronage of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  

The medieval-style retable frame (which originally had a different image) dates from 1937, the time of Bishop Joseph Schlarman, who was the third bishop of Peoria from 1930-1951.  The frame has an inscription from Luke 2:13 that reads in Latin: Et Subito Facta Est Cum Angelo Multitudo Militiae Coelestis Laudantium Deum Et Dicentium ("And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying").  In 1913 a marble altar was put here, that was since removed and replaced with the tomb of Sheen (hopefully one day the tomb will be properly designed for Holy Mass to be celebrated atop it as an altar).  Thankfully the diocese has sponsored the canonization of Sheen and has been generous to his cause.  

The Sanctuary of St. Mary's Cathedral

Pilgrims on the Fulton Sheen pilgrim trail formerly visited his tomb in the crypt underneath the sanctuary of St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC.  The crypt was ordinarily closed to the public and visitors had to request special permission to visit every time.  With this arrangement in Peoria he is much more accessible now that he is at St. Mary's.   His niece Joan of Yonkers, today age 94, was instrumental in getting his remains transferred to Peoria, which occurred on the 100th anniversary of Sheen's priestly ordination.  Below is an architect's drawing of the what the tomb might someday look like after the beatification or canonization, in the style of the tomb of Benedict XV in the Vatican Grottos underneath St. Peter's Basilica.  

Architect's rendering of possible future tomb of Bishop Sheen

The 1930s reredos, with high altar sadly removed in previous renovation

Sheen was born in 1895 at the nearby farming town of El Paso, about a 40 minute drive east of Peoria.  The original location of his birth was the upstairs second floor apartment of his father's hardware store at 25 West Front Street.  Unfortunately, when Sheen was a boy the property suffered an accidental fire and was demolished during his own lifetime.  

The site of Bishop Sheen's birth in El Paso, Illinois

A few minutes walk from his birthplace is St. Mary's church, the place of his baptism.  The original wooden church built in 1865 with an addition in 1872 was demolished and replaced with a brick structure in 1898 (completed in 1899); it stood where the parish hall sits now (the hall was built in 1999).  The rectory was built in 1914.  Sheen's last visit here was in 1975 when he celebrated Mass for his cousin's 50th wedding anniversary.   

The site of Bishop Sheen's baptism in El Paso, Illinois

A reliquary from Bishop Sheen's private chapel in NYC

Sheens left El Paso in 1899 when his family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Peoria, while their cousins remained in El Paso.  In Peoria he was enrolled in St. Mary's school down the street from the Cathedral.  Next to that building is where he attended high school in an absolutely gorgeous building that was known as Spalding Institute, founded in 1899 and built in 1901.  The school later merged with others and the campus was closed in 1989.  Since 1991 it has been home to diocesan offices.  Today it is known as the Spalding Renewal Center.  

About a 2 hour drive from Peoria, is St. Viator's College in Bourbonnais, practically a suburb of Chicago.  This is where Sheen studied liberal arts as un undergrad, a small all-male school on a beautiful, 39-acre campus.  Sadly, the school closed in 1938 and is today Olivet Nazarene University.  Today only 4 buildings survive from those days.  

In St. Paul, Minnesota Sheen lived at the St. Paul Seminary on the upper banks of the Mississippi River - this is where he began his daily holy hour in the chapel (St. Mary's Chapel, still standing today).  Sheen lived for a time in a building overlooking the chapel known as Loras Hall, a solid and beautiful creation by architect Clarence Johnston (sadly demolished in 2021).  The other 2 buildings he lived in on the campus are still standing, Cretin Hall and Grace Hall, all built in 1894.

The former St. Patrick's convent and parish in Peoria (today United Fellowship Ministries)

Today visitors to Peoria also visit the the graves of Sheen's parents at St. Mary's cemetery.  And some try to visit St. Mark's church, where Sheen's parents later joined as parishioners and where they were buried during the Second World War (the original high altar where he celebrated has thankfully been preserved).  Sheen also stayed in the rectory when he came through town for visits.  

Some visitors also drive by old St. Patrick's church in Peoria's "South Side" (pictured above, at 231 S. Saratoga St.).  This was the first parish assignment for Sheen in Peoria where he spent a year in 1926-'27.  His last visit to the parish was in 1968, on the 100th anniversary of the parish community.  The beautiful church, convent, and gym/auditorium are still standing.  Sadly the property was sold years ago and the interior was gutted.  It would be nice to see a vibrant order such as the FSSP acquire this historic old church and reconstitute it as a parish.  The former convent would make a perfect rectory.    

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