A Saintly Supper: Fulton Sheen and the Turning of a Communist
By Ken Zurski
The Hotel Commodore building sits at the corner of 42nd street and Lexington in the heart of Manhattan’s thriving business hub once known as Terminal City, a complex of hotels and offices conveniently connected to New York’s bustling Grand Central Station. Gloriously introduced in 1919, the hotel boasted a total of ten elevators and 2000 commodious rooms, each one elegantly designed and quite modern for its time. The ceilings were built low for a trendier look, and the largest and most expensive room came with its own working waterfall. The spacious reception area was touted as “The Most Beautiful Lobby in the World,” and outside the main entrance, patrons were greeted by a statue of the man the hotel was named after: Cornelius Vanderbilt, a former steamboat entrepreneur and railroad and shipping tycoon, known as “The Commodore.”
Today, after many renovations, the space is now occupied by the Grand Hyatt of New York, a swanky hotel owned by Donald Trump. The old building is hardly recognizable other than the statue nearby, which still stands. But in its heyday, the Hotel Commodore was an architectural stamp and idyllic retreat. From the moment its doors opened, rooms were almost always filled to capacity and the lobby packed. It was also the perfect place for a meeting, especially a clandestine one. Due to its proximity to the train station, overflow crowds moved feverishly about the hotel’s lobby. With such anxious and hurried activity inside, one could easily maneuver through the excited throng without being noticed or paid any mind. And so it was here at the Hotel Commodore in a quaint but quiet corner of the dining room, in a table for two, that an unlikely conclave took place.
In the spring of 1937, Fulton Sheen was a brash 42-year old monsignor, who was arguably the most popular public figure of the Catholic Church. His voice was known to thousands of listeners as the host of The Catholic Hour, which debuted in 1930 at WEAF in New York and nearly a decade later boasted a resume of 106 radio stations. Sheen was the first and only host. “I will preach Christ and him crucified,” he humbly stated when asked the purpose of the program.
Sheen’s modest upbringing began in sleepy El Paso, Illinois where his parents owned and ran a hardware store in town. Born in 1895, the first child of Newt and Delia (Fulton) of Irish and German descent, Peter John Sheen was just a toddler - and a constant crier due to a nagging case of tuberculosis - when something extraordinary happened. An errand boy at the store, fearful of being caught with a cigarette, threw the lighted butt under the stairs and directly on top of a fifty gallon drum of gasoline. It ignited. Soon, the whole business section of El Paso went up in flames, including the Sheen hardware store, which was reduced to smoke and ash.
The accident was a twist of fate for young Peter. Newt moved the family out of El Paso and bought a farm instead.
But Peter hated life on the farm. He was smart, gregarious, and quite the thinker even at an early age. The laborious chores didn’t challenge his mind as much as they prompted him to scheme his way out of doing them. In one incident, he recalls destroying a wagon wheel with a saw just to avoid the work. “From the earliest age I showed distaste for anything associated with farm life,” Sheen later admitted.
His parents agreed. In order to give their two sons an education (Peter was the older by two years), they moved to Peoria and enrolled the boys in a parochial school, St Mary’s. Sheen’s path to God was underway. School was also where he became known as Fulton. Although the boy had been born and baptized as Peter, when the school asked what name he went by, Sheen’s maternal grandfather chimed in (perhaps mishearing the question) and said, “It’s Fulton.” The name stuck. The school later added his middle initial J.
Archbishop Spalding, the patriarch of Peoria’s Catholic Schools, was influential in young Fulton’s life. While serving as an altar boy during Sunday Mass, Sheen slipped and dropped the wine cruet. The sound of the bulb-shaped container bouncing across the hard surface echoed off the high walls and arched ceilings. Years later, Sheen quipped: “There is no atomic explosion that can equal in intensity of decibels and explosive force that can equal the sound of a wine cruet hitting the marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a Bishop.”
Expecting a stern tongue lashing, young Sheen braced for his punishment. But the Bishop was thoughtful instead. After Mass, he asked, “Young man, where do you plan on going to school when you get big?”
The answer was as obvious to Sheen as the question.
“Why Spalding Academy of course,” he said, referring to the high school named after the Bishop.
“No,” Spalding said, also assuming the boy’s high school was set. “Tell your mother that I said when you get big you will go to Leuven (University) and someday you will be just as I am.”
When Sheen told his parents about the Bishop’s words, his mother gasped in delight. “That’s in Belgium,” she said
The Archbishop’s prophecy came true. Sheen attended high school at Spalding Academy where he exceled in academics and drama, then enrolled in Leuven, the largest and oldest catholic university in the world. “Oh, this is where Bishop Spalding told me to go,” he remembered thinking to himself while entering its doors for the first time.
In September of 1919, Sheen was ordained at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois. The next day he performed his first mass. In the ensuing years after his ordination, Sheen traveled, preached, and studied. Then in the summer of 1925, he was assigned to St Patrick’s Church in an impoverished section of Peoria. A humble, lowly position as a curate may have riled many men of his educational background, but Sheen enjoyed being home and helping the poor. He obeyed orders and bided his time. Two years later, he was called to teach at the Catholic University in New York and left Peoria for good.
In 1926, Sheen went on the radio. It was a perfect outlet for his talent. He prepared scripts and preached the word of God, not just to believers but non-believers as well. This was his torment at first. How to preach the teachings of Christ to non-Catholics? Sheen found a way. He was a natural on the airwaves. His conversational style and ability to explain God‘s will through compassion and love struck listeners of all faiths. The show was called The Catholic Hour, but Sheen made it everyone’s hour.
He talked of God’s gifts to all mankind, and the weekly faithful listened. The first time he mentioned the evils of communism, however, even the FBI took notice.
Louis Budenz noticed too. Although as a child he had been a devout Catholic and an altar boy like Sheen, as an adult Budenz followed a wildly different path.
Born in July of 1891, Budenz followed his mother’s advice and emulated her passionate support of Irish Revolutionaries by attending labor strikes and rallies. Violence ensued on occasions, but the action usually ended only in mass arrests. In each case, it helped that Budenz was also a practicing lawyer. (Time Magazine claims Bundez was arrested 21 times and 21 times he got off without an indictment.)
Next up for Budenz was joining the Communist Party. It was a logical decision. He would work as a writer and espouse his views and opinions in print. The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, was the perfect outlet, and in writing for it, Budenz found his calling. Amongst his communist friends and co-workers, he quickly rose in the ranks.
The Worker never wavered in its support of Stalin even after the Soviet leader executed many of his adversaries, claiming they were out to destroy him. Many party members balked at Stalin’s blatant abuse of power. Fascism was the true threat, they cried, and Stalin’s actions mimicked a certain Fascist leader of Germany. When Stalin and Hitler joined forces in 1939, the Communist Party fractured. The Daily Worker, however, remained loyal to the new Soviet-German pact, and Budenz, who was uber-loyal to the cause, became its new editor.
The paper wielded great power. “We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy,” a former co-worker of Bundez ascribed. Many supporters of Stalin were staunch Hitler haters who could not comply. The Daily Worker never blinked in its allegiance to Stalin, and Editor-in-Chief Budenz made sure there was one consistency under his direction: total support of Soviet polices whatever they may be.
The rule generated an enemies list that was far reaching and long. They included individuals and organizations like the burgeoning Catholic Church.
During the Christmas season of 1936, Budenz took aim. In that month’s issue of the Worker, an article written by Budenz posed a series of questions directed at the Catholic Church and Monsignor Sheen. Explain your criticism of communism, Budenz asked. Sheen responded.
No one had to go any further than Sheen’s radio show to know that the “media preacher” was a staunch opponent of communism. It was a bold stand even for a priest. In the 1920s, anti-communism fever had spread in the United States thanks to President Wilson and the first “Red Scare.” But during the Great Depression that followed, a number of destitute Americans sought answers and solutions that were more in line with socialist rather than capitalistic thinking. In their minds, capitalist owners became the enemy. Therefore, they declared, socialism could only be attained by defeating capitalism.
By banding together, the empowered workers fought with a vengeance; staging heated rallies and strikes in protest. These were mostly laborers living off meager wages. Many had lost their jobs and homes. Capitalists exploited the amount of immigrants within these groups. Since many had come from countries influenced by communistic principles, they claimed, socialist ideals must be closely aligned with communism.
Russia was no birthday cake. Stalin was a ruthless leader. But there was a model of consistency in his polices that appealed to angry workers. When Hitler turned on Stalin and Stalin joined the Allied forces, a genuine wave of support spread through even the most hardboiled detractors. After all, there was a bigger concern now and a more valued prize: the crushing and ultimate defeat of the Axis Powers: Germany and its partners, Japan and Italy.
Most Americans were ambivalent. No one trusted Stalin, and refuted communism as an unacceptable alternative to democracy, but they reluctantly gave Russia, now a war ally, a temporary pass.
Yet some Americans were drawn to this leftist ideology. During this time, the organized Communist Party of America gained momentum - and new members - although they never seriously challenged the two mainstay political parties in elections.
The FBI kept tabs of such activity. The agency closely watched communist party leaders and unfairly labeled them “Soviet spies” for lack of a better term. The Bureau’s interminable leader J. Edgar Hoover led this charge. Hoover hated Stalin and everything to do with communism, war pact be dammed. The FBI even had a file on Sheen, thinking that the radio host might bring some of the most hardened sympathizers - Soviet and Nazi - to Hoover’s attention because of the hate letters sent to the priest.
Sheen wanted nothing to do with the politics of it all. His message was simple: religious freedom must reign. He pounded that message home in speeches and sermons on the radio. A communistic society, he hammered, is no place for a Catholic.
Budenz was confused by the church’s stance. He published an article in the Worker critical of the Catholic faith and its leaders. “How strange it is to see in a world so set up, where Catholic spokesmen in so many instances belabor communism,” Budenz wrote.
In particular, he mentioned Sheen by name. As a man of compassion, Bundez inferred, how could he [Sheen] speak against those who were trying to help the poor and downtrodden?
Sheen sent a booklet back to Budenz titled Communism Answers Questions from a Communist. In it, he cited incendiary quotes from Marx and Lenin and articles from Soviet newspapers describing the economic hardships under communism. In his own words, Sheen wrote: “I’m rather surprised that a communist is not more familiar with Communistic literature and should have asked for texts. But there they are.”
Budenz’s strategy backfired. Sheen’s pamphlet was published and sold 65,000 copies. Many of the quotes were used to refute speakers at pro-communism rallies, including speeches by Budenz.
Incensed and perhaps intrigued by Sheen’s words, Budenz asked to meet with the Church leader. “In hopes that they could win me over to their cause,” is how Sheen would later describe it.
Of course, the monsignor said yes.
Although it was meant to be private, Sheen gladly let the pronouncement of the meeting slip. “I’m having dinner with a leading communist tonight,” he exclaimed to an inquisitive newspaper reporter. “In fact, I’m looking forward to the encounter with great pleasure.”
The time and place however remained under wraps.
In their later years, both men fondly recalled their “odd” meeting at the Hotel Commodore that day. “In an obscure corner we talked for an hour in earnest, quiet tones,” Budenz exclaimed.
Bundez remembers the monsignor’s smile and intense blue eyes. “He told me that he was leaving for England that summer.” Each year Sheen preached in Soho. “Near the house where [Karl] Marx labored,” the monsignor pointed out.
Despite opening with small talk, the insouciant greetings soon turned serious. The conversation drifted to the parallels of communism and fascism, something Bundez vehemently denied. “There is this merit in the communist view that does not inhere in fascism,” Budenz angrily contended. “Communism has within it the promise of democracy and the end of dictatorship in its doctrine of the withering away of the state.”
In Sheen’s own recollections, Budenz’s bickering about communist and fascist differences were inconsequential. There was only one objective in the monsignor’s mind. “I told him I did not want to talk about communism,” Sheen later wrote. “I wanted to talk about his soul.”
The next few minutes became solidly etched in Budenz’s mind. He remembered it vividly even years later as the moment that eventually changed his life. Describing Sheen’s restraint at first Budenz said, “He was not disposed to contradict me. That would have only aroused my personal pride and enticed me to further argument.”
“What he did instead,” Budenz reflects, “took me totally by surprise.”
Sheen rose and pushed aside the cutlery on the table. He bent forward and “waved his hand in argumentation.” In a voice snarling with contempt, he said: “Let us now talk of the Blessed Virgin.”
Budenz froze with fear. “It was an ‘electrifying moment,’” he later described.
According to Budenz, Sheen spent the next few minutes talking “of the miracle of Lourdes, with the promises of Our Lady, the prayers of the church, and the conversion of Russia within her grace.”
Budenz was transfixed. He later confessed: “In the course of my varied career, I have met many magnetic men and women, have conferred with governors, and senators, have stood in court twenty-one times as a result of labor disputes – breathlessly awaited the verdict and each time experienced the triumph of acquittal – but never has my soul been swept by love and reverence as it was that April evening.”
The two men departed that day and would not meet or associate again for another nine years.
Bundez battled his own personal convictions in that time, but could not shake the power of one simple statement; the last words Sheen spoke before departing. “I will always pray for you because you have never fully lost the faith,” the monsignor said.
Nine years later, Budenz wrote Sheen a letter. “I’m returning to the Catholic Church,” he said, “and bringing my family with me.” Sheen welcomed him back without regrets. In 1945, Budenz confessed his sins and Sheen baptized him.
Budenz’s “turning (to God),” as Sheen called it, was also a major boon for Hoover and the FBI. In the now former communist, Hoover had a rat - and names, lots of them. Budenz enthusiastically complied. He was interviewed for 3,000 hours by FBI agents and, in the end, sent several leaders of the American Communist Party to prison for treason.
For Sheen, Budenz’s conversion was just another day at the office. One night the monsignor received a call came from a member of the Communist Party, who asked: “Is it true that you received Louis Budenz into the Catholic Church?”
Sheen coolly replied, “Don’t tell me the Daily Worker is at last interested in the truth?”
The man’s retort, Sheen remembers, were words that “cannot be found in any manual of prayer.”
Even the Daily Worker was blindsided by the news that its influential leader had switched sides. Sheen had kept tight-lipped about the defection right up to the day Budenz was received by the church. In fact, in that day’s edition of the Daily Worker, Budenz was still listed as editor-in-chief.
Sheen continued to condemn the evils of communism even after World War II ended.
Under the post-war agreement, Stalin’s Russia would be part of an American plan to bail out the European nations strangled by the economic toll of the war. Even Germany would be included. But Stalin balked. He refused any help from the U.S. and especially hated the idea of the Germans getting aid. He mapped out his own dominance of Europe. The Cold War began.
Most Americans, thanks to the government’s persuasiveness, were optimistic that Russia would stay on our side after the war. But based on past principles, Sheen never bought into it. He continued to blast Stalin and communism on the air.
The Catholic Church tried to diffuse some of Sheen’s comments by posting a lookout in the radio studio. The mandate was clear: cut the microphone if Sheen mentioned anything about the Russians and communism. Sheen had said all along that his battle was not with the Russian people but with the Soviet government’s polices. Still the Church wanted no backlash. Because of the scrutiny, Sheen nearly quit the radio show, but endured the pull of the church’s leash with grace. Eventually he moved on to television, a medium where he is most remembered today.
Although he became “the face” of Catholicism and a television star, his persistent stance on communism gets lost in the strong spiritual side of his faith. Today he is being considered - and may be just a substantiated miracle away – from sainthood. Sheen, however, credits himself for correctly predicting the grim future and spread of communism.
Shortly after the war, during a speech in Akron, Sheen was approached by a high-ranking official in the clergy and asked, “What are you talking about tonight?” Sheen replied matter-of-factly, “About Russia and Eastern Europe and how Russia will take over all of Eastern Europe.”
The man was furious.
“You’re crazy! Russia is a democracy,” he insisted. “It is no longer communist.”
Sheen started down a flight of stairs. He wanted no part of a confrontation. But as his foot hit each step, Sheen remembers the man pointing his finger and yelling at him from above.
“You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” the man said.
Sheen reached the bottom, turned and looked up. “Someday you will see,” he said, “Eastern Europe will belong to the communists.”
The man was left standing and wondering.
The monsignor bowed his head and quietly walked away.
(Sources: Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen; This is My Story by Louis Budenz; America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen by Thomas C. Reeves; Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner).