NEW YORK (CN) - The surviving niece of TV’s original megastar priest Archbishop Fulton Sheen suffered a setback in her efforts to move his body from a crypt in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to an Illinois church for his potential canonization as a saint, after a court ruled that Sheen’s burial wishes are unclear.
The New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ruled Tuesday that there are “disputed issues of material fact as to Archbishop Sheen's wishes” before his death in December 1979. The court ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine if Sheen should be moved to the Prairie State, where he was ordained as a priest and where his family hopes he will complete his journey to sainthood.
A hearing is necessary, the court ruled, because of the conflicting accounts of Monsignor Hilary Franco - Sheen’s close friend and former assistant - and his oldest living niece Joan Sheen Cunningham, who wants the court to allow her to disinter her uncle's remains to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Illinois.
According to court records, Sheen told Franco that he wished to remain in New York after he died and that cardinals had offered to bury him at a crypt at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
But Cunningham and three siblings claim, among other things, that Sheen would have wanted to be interred at St. Mary’s had he known that he would be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint.
In an affidavit, Cunningham challenged Franco's credibility, and said he was not as close to Sheen as he suggests.
In lieu of the legal wrangling, St. Mary's has suspended the canonization process but still supports Cunningham's bid to move Sheen’s remains.
St. Patrick Cathedral's attorney John Callagy of New York firm Kelley Drye said that Sheen's intent to be buried in New York was clear from his will and that the appeals court ruled correctly.
“We feel pretty comfortable that the only facts that exist suggest that he wanted to be buried in New York and stay in New York,” Callagy said in a phone interview.
Cunningham’s attorney Steven Cohn was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday.
In his heyday, Sheen was one of the most famous evangelical priests in America. As a radio personality he hosted “The Catholic Hour,” and from the early-to-mid 1950s was the host of “Life is Worth Living," a weekly television show that captivated millions of viewers.
For his work delivering sermons on issues ranging from racism to nuclear proliferation and Communism, Sheen earned an Emmy award in 1952 for “Most Outstanding Television Personality.”
Tuesday's 3-2 ruling in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division found that the petitioning court in Manhattan “failed to give appropriate consideration” to Franco's affidavit, “and too narrowly deﬁned the inquiry into Archbishop Sheen's wishes.”
“If those conversations did in fact occur, they could fairly be viewed as reflecting Archbishop Sheen's desire to be buried there,” Justice Rosalyn Richter wrote for the majority.
In a November 2016 order, the lower court granted the niece's request that the St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archdiocese of New York hand over Sheen’s remains. But the appeals court ruled that the conflicting accounts “are best explored in an evidentiary hearing.”
“We also note that Archbishop Sheen had long-standing close ties to New York City," Richter added. "He lived in New York for 25 years, hosted his radio and television shows from there, was consecrated a bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, and preached at St. Patrick's Cathedral and other New York churches."
Richter was joined in the majority by Justices Anil Singh and Peter Moulton.
Justice Cynthia Kern dissented, saying she would have upheld the ruling in Cunningham’s favor. She was joined in her dissent by Justice Troy Webber.
Kern said the court should defer to the wishes of Sheen’s next of kin if there are no issues of fact to decide.
The judge wrote that Franco's affidavit is vague and founded on speculation, while Cunningham, who is now almost 90, was raised by Sheen and as an adult became his assistant, confidante, and traveling companion. She was by his side in the two days leading up to his death at age 84.
“While, the majority states that an evidentiary hearing may be required even where a decedent expresses his or her burial wishes in a will, for an evidentiary hearing to be required, there must be some evidence of a clear alternate desire by the decedent to be buried elsewhere,” Kern wrote. “The statements made by Monsignor Franco in his afﬁdavit are insufficient to require an evidentiary hearing as they do not demonstrate a clear desire by Archbishop Sheen to be buried somewhere other than in Calvary Cemetery. As a result, Archbishop Sheen's family's wishes should be followed.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.