For four centuries, America has been built on the development of agriculture. Nowhere is that revealed more than in America’s heartland, stretching from the Great Lakes region through the Great Plains. Sitting right in the middle of this stretch of geography resides Peoria, Illinois, rising up in the midst of a vast sea of farmland. Not only does Peoria remind pilgrims of our national culture of simplicity and diligent agricultural work, it is the home of America’s pastor, Venerable Fulton Sheen. Because of this connection, this midwestern town offers a rich opportunity for believers to deepen their encounter with Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
In 1900, Newt and Delia Sheen moved to Peoria from nearby El Paso, Illinois. That year, their son, Peter, whose nickname was “Fulton” (after his mother’s maiden name), was just five years old. Young “Fulton” was quite unique from other boys his age: he was a devoted bibliophile who sensed a call to the priesthood during high school. In 1913, Fulton Sheen graduated from the Spalding Institute, which was the diocese’s high school for boys and named for the first bishop of the diocese. From there, he went to college, seminary, and the great Catholic universities of the world to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy and theology. The education that he received, beginning in Peoria, was the solid foundation for sharing the Gospel around the globe.
The same building that stood as Sheen’s high school alma mater now houses the diocesan pastoral center, including the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Museum, which opened in 2008. Inside the museum, pilgrims are recommended to begin by watching a short documentary film, Archbishop Fulton Sheen: Servant of All. After watching the film pilgrims are treated to an array of artifacts related to the venerable bishop’s life. These include the desk and typewriter from his office in New York City, probably the same desk and typewriter from which he wrote his most noteworthy books; liturgical vestments and vessels from throughout his career as a priest and bishop, including a bishop’s pectoral cross still used for special ceremonial occasions; books inscribed with hand-written messages from the pastor; and the positio (the massive collection of documents) laying out the case for his canonization. No visitor can leave this museum without a better understanding of Sheen as a man, a media evangelist, and a deeply devoted Christian.
Every pilgrim also must visit that diocesan Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, which is nearby both the pastoral center and downtown Peoria. This is the magnificent space in which Venerable Fulton Sheen was ordained to the priesthood in 1919, and in which his remains now reside. Sheen lies in state in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the patroness of the New Evangelization. This sacred space offers pilgrims a chance to kneel in prayer, lay sacramentals on the stone tomb, and leave prayer intentions for this holy man’s intercession.
In addition to Sheen’s tomb, the cathedral offers many more glimpses toward heaven. There are artifacts that were present at Sheen’s ordination Mass, such as the angel statues that now flank the rear entrance to the nave. There are also beautiful ceiling murals that invoke the cosmos of creation and the prophets of the Old Testament, which were completed during a recent renovation project. Perhaps most notably, there is a wonderful collection of stained-glass windows that envelop the nave. These windows point to the most significant missionary moments throughout the history of the Church, specifically the missions of the Church in the United States.
Finally, inside the cathedral is the St. Thomas More Chapel. The stained-glass windows in this room honor some of the most noteworthy martyrs of England (Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher) and Ireland (St. Oliver Plunkett). The chapel also houses dozens of relics from saints through the Church’s history, including some that were held in Archbishop Sheen’s private chapel. The centerpiece of the chapel is an original painting of the Crucified Christ by the Spanish artist Yzquierda from 1873. Although slightly different, it is a near-exact rendition of Christ Crucified, by Diego Velázquez, which is one of the most recognizable pieces from the golden age of Spanish art. Here, pilgrims are able to remain quietly for a prolonged moment, conversing with Our Blessed Lord and pondering the myriad graces that come from His salvific act.
Another hidden treasure on this pilgrimage is St. Mark’s Church, adjacent to the campus of Bradley University. This is the parish church at which Sheen celebrated his first Christmas Mass in 1919. The high altar on which he consecrated the Body and Blood of Our Lord is still the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated today. This quaint parish church is also a designated shrine to Bl. John of Fiesole, better known to most Catholics as Fra Angelico. The art in the central apse and the side chapels are all beautiful reproductions of works by the great patron saint of artists. Anyone with an appreciation of sacred art ought to make at least a short visit here.
Near the conclusion of this Sheen-centered pilgrimage, another memorable site to visit is Peoria’s St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, where Newt and Delia Sheen are buried. Catholics know holy men and women most often learn their devotion to the Lord from the holy example of parents. Quite simply, saints like Fulton Sheen are cultivated in the fertile ground of devoted families. Those of us who are parents can approach this final resting place and offer a heartfelt prayer: “Newt and Delia, help us in our effort to make saints.”
Finally, every great pilgrimage should include good food and drink. Not only do culinary experiences help us understand a culture, they also allow us time to process the wonderful things we have experienced. In honor of Fulton Sheen’s Irish heritage, Kelleher’s Irish Pub & Eatery is a fantastic spot to wrap up this pilgrimage in America’s heartland. The corned beef and cabbage and the fish and chips provide an authentic taste of Ireland, while the wall of Irish whiskeys and the in-house stout beer deepen one’s appreciation for that culture.
At the conclusion of our pilgrimage, it is right to raise a toast to America’s pastor, Venerable Fulton Sheen. We appreciate all the ways that we can grow in faith, hope, and charity by visiting the region where he was raised; by learning more about his life and mission; and by invoking him as intercessor in our efforts to share the Good News with others. Then, as we return to our daily lives, we can know and appreciate the truth that he conveyed with ever greater clarity.