Fulton J. Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois in 1895. His parents, Newton and Delia, lived on a small farm. Though baptized as Peter John Sheen, the boy who would become a famous Catholic evangelist and author was known from his early youth by his mother’s maiden name, Fulton. Fulton and his three brothers were given a strict Catholic upbringing; they were made to attend church regularly and pray the Rosary every night. Fulton embraced the Catholic faith of his parents from a young age.
Fulton’s involvement in the church began when he served as an altar boy at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, where his family moved. The young Sheen went to parochial school and excelled at public speaking and debate. He graduated from Spalding Institute as high school valedictorian and attended St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois. He then attended Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota and was ordained on September 20, 1919.
Sheen went on to study further at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a doctorate in Philosophy. Sheen then went to Louvain University in Belgium where he became the first American ever to earn a agrege en Philosophie, the highest title the school could bestow. He finished his doctorate in 1925, and was awarded the Cardinal Mercier award for his philosophical dissertation.
After a brief involvement with a small Peoria church, Sheen became an instructor at Catholic University, where he became a popular professor. He would keep this job until 1950. During this time, Sheen authored a number of books which met with considerable success and a wide readership among the Catholics of his day. His books include “The Seven Last Words” (1933), “The Eternal Galilean” (1934), “The Cross and the Beatitudes” (1937), “Seven Words of Jesus and Mary” (1945) and “Communism and the Conscience of the West”(1949.)
Fulton soon placed himself even more firmly in the public eye. He appeared on “Catholic Hour”, a National radio program, in 1928. His appearance was well-received, and he soon became one of the program’s most popular preachers. For the next twenty years, he appeared regularly on the program, often preaching during Lent and Holy Week.
As Sheen became more well-known, offers of speaking engagements poured in. He began preaching annually at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and soon was a sought after guest on many Catholic programs throughout the United States and Europe.
In 1948, Sheen embarked on a world-wide speaking tour with Cardinal Spellman, a prominent church figure of the time. Spellman later appointed Sheen head of the American branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. This society, one of the four Pontifical Mission Societies, was dedicated to raising funds for and giving support to missionary churches in Africa, Asia, and the Islands of the Pacific. Sheen threw himself into the work of running the Society and was a very successful fundraiser. He also continued to write, producing books and articles that appeared in publications throughout the United States and abroad. He preached in different venues, and became known for his powers of conversion. Some of the converts attributed to him include writer and politician Clare Boothe Luce, industrialist Henry Ford II, composer Fritz Kreisler, actress Virginia Mayo and ex-Communist Louis Buden.
Sheen is perhaps best known for his weekly television programs. “Life is Worth Living” aired on Tuesday nights at 8pm. As reported in the April 14, 1952 issue of Time Magazine, Sheen’s show, which began production in 1951, was very successful and even prompted the famous Milton Berle (whose show’s ratings he challenged) to say, “If I’m going to be eased off the top by anyone, it’s better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.” Called the “First Televangelist” by Time, Sheen won an Emmy in 1952.
The show, which boasted 30 million viewers weekly, ran until 1957. A year later, Sheen was appointed to another office, the directorship of The Society for Propagation of the Faith. Eight years later, on October 26, 1966, Sheen was appointed Bishop of Rochester, New York. His role as a televangelist continued however, until 1968, with “The Fulton Sheen Program.”
Sheen was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. In his later years, he was appointed as Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales, and continued writing books and articles. At his death in 1979, he had written and published 73 books.