Fr Kevin Hegarty
The ‘Mayo Person of the Year’ is a prestigious award. The next recipient will be announced shortly. A former winner is in line for a more significant title. Fr Patrick Peyton was ‘Mayo Person of the Year’ in 1987. Just before Christmas, Pope Francis accorded him the title of ‘Venerable’. It is a major step on the road to sainthood.
Who was Fr Patrick Peyton and why was he once one of the most famous priests in the world? Patrick was born in 1909 in Carracastle in the parish of Attymass. He was one of eleven children living on a small farm of 14 acres at the foot of the Ox mountains. He was educated at Bofield National School. Somewhat rebellious, he dropped out of school.
In his later teens he experienced the desire to become a priest but his family had not the means of furthering his education. When his father became ill he helped out on the farm. Some of his sisters had emigrated to the USA. They encouraged him to follow them.
In 1927 Patrick and his brother Thomas arrived in Scranton in Pennsylvania. He got work at a sexton in the Cathedral. Here he met Monsignor Paul Kelly who he told of his interest in becoming a priest. Kelly encouraged him. He and Thomas joined the ‘Congregation of the Holy Cross’ in 1929. After completing his high school studies, Patrick began courses of philosophy and theology in preparation for priesthood.
In 1938 it seemed as if his hope of ordination was to turn to ashes. He contracted a severe form of tuberculosis. His life hung in the balance. From his home in Carracastle he had brought a strong devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. He attributed his recovery from near certain death to her intercession.
In 1941 he and Thomas were ordained in the ‘Basilica of the Sacred Heart’ in the University of Notre Dame.
The promotion of the rosary was at the heart of his priestly ministry. He nicknamed himself, ‘Our Lady’s Salesman’. A creative thinker, he was convinced that the new mass media of radio and television offered opportunities for Catholic evangelisation.
He persuaded Elsie Dick, Director of the Mutual Broadcasting Corporation to give him a half-hour programme which started on the day that the second World War ended in Europe. Prominent Catholics like Bing Crosby took part in his programmes. He recruited other Hollywood stars as he developed his media ministry. James Dean, later an icon of teenage America, made his debut in one of Peyton’s television dramas.
The other major plank of his ministry was the promotion of rosary crusades. Under the slogans that ‘the family that prays together stays together’ and ‘a world at prayer is a world at peace’, he brought his crusades to Europe, Australia, South East Asia, Africa and South America.
His 1954 crusade to Ireland attracted huge interest. The meeting at Knock had a congregation of 20,000 people. A crusade to The Philippines in 1982 drew two million participants. Peyton died at the age of 83 in 1992. His ministry continues through the agency of the ‘Family Rosary’ organisation in New York.
On a personal note, Fr Peyton visited St Muredach’s College when I was a student in the 1970s. As teenagers trying to be cool in 1970s Ballina, we were not excited by his arrival. We saw the main benefit as the abandonment of the timetable for the duration of his visit. I remember a tall frail man who, despite several decades in the USA, had not lost his strong Mayo accent. He told us of his early life in Ireland and his ministry. He silenced our scepticism by his sincerity.
His memory is commemorated in the Fr Peyton Centre in Attymass. Those who knew him and those who were influenced by him long for the day when the Vatican will accord another St Patrick to Ireland.