Brian Harrington on the remarkable life and witness of Fr Patrick Peyton, the charismatic 'rosary priest'
Fr Patrick Peyton, the "rosary priest", is among a number of distinguished Irish Catholics on course for canonisation. Like Frank Duff, Edel Quinn, founder of the Legion of Mary, and Matt Talbot, intercessor for those with alcoholic problems, Fr Peyton may one day be proclaimed a saint.
Born in Attymass, Co. Mayo, in 1909, Fr Peyton spent nearly all his priestly life promoting the rosary as a prayer of family unity in the United States and elsewhere during the last century. He died in Los Angeles on the June 3, 1992, aged 83.
He spoke to crowds of thousands at rallies to promote the rosary and was very successful at promoting his message through the medium of radio and television, convincing famous stars from Hollywood such as Grace Kelly, Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck, Ronald Regan and Bing Crosby to participate in his own family radio show.
Even James Cagney, whose fame rested on his ability to play hard bitten tough guys so well, was an enthusiastic supporter of Fr Peyton. In the years that followed, James Dean was to get his first film role in one of Fr Peyton's productions, while George Lucas worked as an assistant cameraman with Fr Peyton for a time.
Philosophers tell us that God's being is simple and that man, to share in God's holiness needs to share in His simplicity, the simplicity of Trinitarian being. Fr Peyton was an example of this achievement of holiness through simplicity. He had a profound devotion to Our Lady and a simple message for the world: put the rosary at the heart of your family and peace will reign there, a peace guarded by the mother of God herself. 'The family that prays together stays together" and "a world at prayer is a world at peace" were the messages that he preached.
Fr Peyton, the sixth of nine children, was born into a family that prayed the rosary together every evening. The rosary was such a part of his spiritual life that when he went at the age of 15 to work for a week with another family on a nearby farm, he was deeply unhappy that they ended their day without the prayer he was accustomed to. At the end of the week's work, he approached the man of the house and reprimanded him for the lack of family prayer. The man said nothing at the time, but subsequently the young Patrick Peyton was to hear that the family rosary had taken root in that house. Fr Peyton's life's work had begun, though he was not to know this for another 10 years.
Fr Peyton felt he had a vocation to the missions, but fell a little short of the academic level required because of his interrupted schooling.
He turned his attention to business and began employment with a local businessman. His taciturn nature at the time soon provoked a row with his employer and Fr Peyton resigned with the words: "I lived before I laid eyes on you, I'll live if I never lay eyes on you again."
His sisters and some members of his father's and mother's families had settled in the US at this stage. So Fr Peyton and his brother Tom succeeded in getting the blessing of their father to go to their sisters in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with the ambition of succeeding in business.
His sister Nellie, one of those in the US, was instrumental in keeping the flame of his vocation alive with her daily prayers and sacrifices. On Fr Peyton's arrival, he was told that a local monsignor wanted to speak to him but the young Patrick Peyton wasn't interested. The Lord had other ideas however and try as he might elsewhere, the job Fr Peyton eventually accepted was as sexton at the local cathedral.
Within a few months of having served at the cathedral, Fr Peyton was ready to accept his calling and follow his vocation. His studies were initially sponsored by the local monsignor. His brother Tom was called from the coal mines to take over his job at the cathedral and he too subsequently became a priest. The local monsignor recommended that Peyton join the Holy Cross Order. He was accepted and then began philosophical and theological studies.
A year before ordination his health broke down. He had contracted tuberculosis. Medical treatment was unsuccessful, but Fr Peyton, following a visit by a priest of his order, made an act of faith in Mary. Subsequent tests revealed his TB was clearing up success fully and he made a full recovery. In gratitude to Our Lady, he decided to devote his priestly life to the promotion of the rosary as a prayer to support and strengthen the family. There was a price to pay, however, because both his devoted sister Nellie and his mother in Ireland died within six months of his recovery. He was convinced that they had offered themselves to God for the sake of his vocation.
A note found in Nellie's possession at the time of her death read: "I, Nellie Peyton, offer Thee, dear Lord, all my thoughts, words, and actions of this day, and every day, and even life itself, for my two brothers, Thomas Francis Peyton and Patrick Joseph Peyton, that if it be Thy Holy Will that they become priests, that never in their priestly lives will they commit a mortal sin."
Fr Peyton's big break into broadcasting for the promotion of the rosary occurred on Sunday, May 13, 1945. It was Mother's Day, Fatima Day and a day for thanksgiving in the US for victory in the war in Europe. He was granted a half hour of broadcast time for the rosary. He had the Sullivan family of Iowa, who lost five sons in a naval battle in the Pacific, pray the rosary. Cardinal Spellman of New York spoke and Bing Crosby sang. The programme was described as the most moving of the day and won many awards.
Fr Peyton subsequently had many radio shows and movies produced to promote the rosary and family prayer with top Hollywood names giving their services free of charge. Starting in London, Ontario, he then developed the concept of the Rosary Crusade. With the Rosary Crusade teams of volunteers were organised in a Catholic Diocese to obtain pledges to say the family rosary from Catholic families. The Rosary Crusade always ended with a rally at which Mass was celebrated and the rosary said. One such rally in San Francisco in 1961 was attended by more than half a million people, the largest number of people ever to gather together in the United States up to that date. The Rosary Crusade subsequently spread to all continents with particular success in Latin America and the Philippines.
Fr Peyton's work of promoting family prayer and in particular the rosary as a family prayer is continued today by the organisation he founded Holy Cross Family Ministries, which is part of the Holy Cross Congregation.
memorial centre to Fr Peyton's life and work as erected in 1998 in ttymass, Co. Mayo, in the lee shadow of the Ox Mountains, a place where the silence of God lies almost tangibly upon the landscape.
The interpretive centre and grounds were designed by a local architect from nearby Charlestown and feature gardens, a chapel, a video room, a canteen, a bookshop and a conference room. Land for the project was donated by the local bishop, with funding for construction coming from the Holy Cross order in the United States.
After obtaining Vatican approval, Bishop Sean O'Malley of Fall River, Massachusetts, officially opened Fr. Peyton's cause of canonisation on June 1, 2001. He oversees the process as Fr Peyton's remains are buried in the Holy Cross Community cemetery in his diocese. Fr Peyton can now be called "Servant of God".
There are two ways in which the reader can help in the canonisation process for Fr Peyton. The first is by submitting stories attesting to the holiness of his life. This first method is for those who have come into contact with Fr Peyton at a personal level. He spoke at a rosary rally at Galway Racecourse in 1954, for example, and at Wembley Stadium a few years earlier.
The second method is to pray to him to intercede for you before the throne of God and report any favours thus received to the centre. Prayer cards for this purpose can be obtained by writing to the Fr Peyton centre in Attymass, Co. Mayo.
Fr Peyton prayed the 15 decades of the rosary every day of his life. He recognised the
real treasure he had been given and he spent all his life sharing that treasure with all he met.
It is from saintly homes that saints most often come. Fr Peyton regarded his own parents, who led simple agricultural lives, as saints whose recitation of the family rosary each night was their gift to him.
As he once said: "The greatest event in my life was to be born in a rosary home, if anything, it's there that I feel spells the difference of a life that has meaning, purpose, love.
"I had an ability to handle life because I was born in a rosary home, trained in a rosary home, lived in a rosary home, saw the truth of the statement that the family that prays together stays together, all else depended on that as sure as God is alive, all else in my life, the love of all peoples, it all began there and if anything is special, that's it."
For further information, contact Fr Peyton Memorial Centre, Attymas Ballina, Co. Mayo Ireland. Tel: 00353 96 45374. Email: [email protected]