In a powerful address on the evening he blessed the new Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in lower Manhattan, Cardinal Dolan recalled admiringly the gifts and influence of the dynamic spiritual leader for whom it was named while touting the dedication ceremony as “just the opening pitch” of a grand new venture for the archdiocese.
The cardinal’s address, delivered in the center’s 249-seat theater, The Loretto, suitably framed Archbishop Sheen’s personal history and enduring legacy as perhaps the foremost Catholic evangelist of the 20th century in the United States.
First for two decades on radio, and then on television, Archbishop Sheen was a weekly visitor in some 30 million American homes, with his popular and much honored “Life Is Worth Living” program. The cardinal said Archbishop Sheen had a “fervent desire to present the ageless truths of Catholicism” to a “skeptical American audience.”
The archbishop was so effective a communicator that he demonstrated “once and for all that American society had nothing to fear from Catholics, and in fact could count on the Church to be a real partner in fostering democracy, justice and freedom,” Cardinal Dolan explained.
Pointing to the reasons for the success that Archbishop Sheen enjoyed in his endeavors as an evangelist, the cardinal noted the archbishop’s “abundant natural talents,” including his wit, charm and eloquence. He also described his effectiveness as a teacher who could break down complex truths and dogmas with interesting and informed stories and illustrations drawn from his vast knowledge and study of many fields. His warm, thoughtful and genuine personal nature also served him well, the cardinal added.
“God’s grace built on that nature,” the cardinal said. “He was a man of intense faith.”
Archbishop Sheen’s love for Jesus Christ resulted in an intense desire to make him known and to make the Catholic faith “known, accepted and appreciated in American society.”
In doing so, he was attempting to “move Catholics from an outsider to an insider status within American culture,” the cardinal said.
Along with his media apostolate, which included authoring some 80 books, including the spiritual classic, “The Life of Christ,” Archbishop Sheen’s biography was filled with other notable accomplishments, as recounted in rich detail by the cardinal. He served as an auxiliary bishop in the New York Archdiocese for 15 years, beginning in 1951, and was renowned here for his preaching abilities. Much of the same time he also was national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He later would serve as Bishop of Rochester, 1966-1969.
He died in New York City in 1979 at age 84 and is buried in a crypt underneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His cause for canonization, which opened in 2002 and had made advances, was suspended earlier this month by the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., his native diocese. (Story on Page 4).
As the cardinal spoke Sept. 15, the invited guests listening included Archbishop Sheen’s niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, of Yonkers, and other members of her family, whom he warmly welcomed.
Before and after the cardinal’s talk, visitors were invited to make their own way around the Sheen Center, which has been extensively renovated from top to bottom. Starting on the basement level, there is an 80-seat Black Box theater, which features flexible seating that is fully retractable.
There are three rehearsal studios on the second floor. The first floor features a small chapel and a gallery space that is also available to rent for small receptions.
The center is also providing housing space for young Fellowship of Catholic University Student (FOCUS) missionaries serving at colleges and universities in the archdiocese.
The Loretto, a neoclassical proscenium theater, features restored architectural details owing to its history as a school auditorium at the former Our Lady of Loreto parish. (In more recent years, the Sheen Center building was home to the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men.)
Seating, divided between the main floor and balcony levels, is comparable to that of an Off-Broadway theater. The rich detailing and sense of history give the Loretto character all its own.
“It’s completely unexpected,” said Gary Bernstein, the producing director at the Sheen Center. “The rest of the building is ultra-modern.”
The center is already making a mark on the downtown arts scene, owing in part to its participation in the recent Fringe Festival, when it hosted 24 plays on its stages, Bernstein said in a recent interview with CNY. The three-week festival in August was a perfect way “to introduce the theater community to the Sheen Center.”
Bernstein is working with a small professional staff that includes artistic director Jessica Bashline and general manager Rosemarie Bruno, a longtime archdiocesan employee.
The center’s mission statement says in part that it seeks to provide “a forum to highlight the true, the good and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages.”
“Cognizant of our creation in the image and likeness of God, the Sheen Center aspires to present the heights and depths of human expression in thought and culture, featuring humankind as fully alive.”
In his column in Catholic New York in late June, Cardinal Dolan wrote he anticipated that the center’s projects would include exhibitions of all types, academic lectures and symposia and theatrical productions—“all to foster thought and dialogue.”
In recent months, the Sheen Center has conducted a “soft opening” highlighted by performances by a contemporary ballet company and a local theater company. The Pace University Theater Department also plans to use the center’s facilities. Because arts schedules are booked a year in advance, Bernstein said he expects the Sheen Center will become increasingly sought as a performance venue in the months to come.
“We’re very fortunate that the archdiocese has the vision to think to do this,” he said.
“So far, I’ve loved the challenge. We’ve come an incredibly long way.”
Evan Mueller, a theater arts instructor at NYU who attended the dedication, told CNY he had already utilized the facilities at the Sheen Center with a theater company to which he is affiliated.
The loss of “hidden” cultural spaces is an unfortunate byproduct of the real estate upturn, Mueller said, so the appearance of the Sheen Center “is amazing for cultural life,” especially considering its downtown location.
Father Andrew Small, O.M.I., president of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States and a successor to Archbishop Sheen’s work on behalf of the missions, said he hoped that the Sheen Center would live up to the “fearless” approach of its namesake.
Asked what advice he might offer those in charge of the Sheen Center, Father Small counseled, “Don’t be afraid of who you speak to, or who you invite in…Don’t be afraid of Jesus Christ, of preaching the Gospel,” he said.
“This has to be a fearless place.”