PEORIA, Ill. — You could make a game out of the question: “Who’s the most famous Peorian?”
There’s entertainers, authors, generals, inventors, scholars, tycoons, the famous and infamous. But there’s only one former Peorian who’s the subject of a whole museum: Archbishop Fulton John Sheen.
That museum is just down the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Fulton Sheen was an altar boy, was ordained and celebrated his first Mass. It has the largest collection of Sheen’s personal items, from boyhood in Peoria to worldwide fame as an adult.
“People come from all over. From other countries, from Poland,” said Peoria Diocese Archivist Sister Lea Stefancova.
Sheen was born in El Paso, above his father’s hardware store in 1895. His family later moved to Peoria, where Sheen was educated. He excelled in school, winning his second Ph.D. by the age of 29.
In 1926, he was returned to do parish work at St. Patrick’s Church on Peoria’s south side. It was a test of his obedience, and he passed.
It was Sheen’s speaking ability, talking to everyday people that won him fame. In the 1930s millions listened to the weekly radio show, “The Catholic Hour.” In 1951, he began his television career with “Life is Worth Living.” He won an Emmy award the first year.
By 1957, he was drawing 30 million viewers a week. Sheen was an avowed anti-communist, but also was a progressive on many social matters, such as when he called on U.S. corporations to share the wealth.
Sheen would work 19 hours a day and by 1979, he had written 66 books. Recordings of his TV programs are still being broadcast. So, who’s the most famous Peorian? It’s difficult to top Sheen.