By Sarah Mac Donald - 22 March, 2019
A documentary broadcast on RTÉ Television on Thursday evening has claimed that Fr Patrick Peyton’s Rosary crusade in Brazil was bankrolled by the CIA as part of the USA’s campaign against communism in Latin America in the 1960s.
‘Guns & Rosaries’, which was narrated by actor Martin Sheen, was produced by Irish company Esras Productions.
The programme detailed the Irish priest’s journey from hardship in Attymass, Co. Mayo to his training for the priesthood in the US and the following he built up for his family values crusade from the 1940s onwards amongst American Catholics and Hollywood A listers.
Known to millions around the world as ‘The Rosary Priest’, the Catholic media pioneer used radio, television, film, billboards and prayer to promote his message of family unity through family prayer.
One of the most famous slogans he coined was ‘The family that prays together stays together’.
That was at the heart of his ‘Family Rosary Crusade’, which saw millions participate in massive Rosary rallies in cities on every continent from 1948 onwards.
By 1985, when two million people attended the prayer rally in Manila in the Philippines, 260 of these Rosary rallies, dedicated to family prayer, had been staged worldwide.
Patrick Peyton was born into very humble beginnings on a tiny landholding near the Irish village of Attymass in Co. Mayo on 9 January 1909. He was the sixth of John and Mary Peyton’s nine children. It was a deeply religious, traditional Irish family with little prospects for the children except emigration.
His father was already 42 and in poor health when Patrick was born. This was partly responsible for Patrick dropping out of school as a teenager to carry out his father’s duties on the farm. Despite the challenges of their meagre circumstances, the whole family would always make time to gather together every evening to pray the Rosary by the light of a turf fire.
At some stage between the ages of 9 and 17, Patrick began to contemplate priesthood. But the gaps in his education due to leaving school early militated against him.
He had a number of family members in Scranton, Pennsylvania, including three sisters and three uncles. In 1927 they invited 18-year-old Patrick and his older brother Tom to sail to the US to find work there.
His sister Beatrice was working for the state Attorney General in Pennsylvania, but it was his other sister Nellie who introduced him to the person who would help set his life on course.
Monsignor Paul Kelly was parish priest of St Stanislaus Cathedral and he gave Patrick his first job and helped him pursue his priestly vocation.
Working as the cathedral sexton, he enrolled at St Thomas High School, at the suggestion of Monsignor Kelly, to improve his education. Tom Peyton was also keen to become a priest and the Monsignor helped him in both.
In the spring of 1929, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross visited Scranton Cathedral on a vocations drive. The Congregation’s focus on the Holy Family resonated with Patrick.
Three years later, in 1932, both Patrick and Tom joined the Congregation of Holy Cross in Notre Dame, Indiana. In his reference for the 23-year-old Irish immigrant, Monsignor Kelly wrote of Patrick: “I envy the community or the bishop that finally gets him.”
Then in October 1938 Patrick’s health began to fail and he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis.
His condition continued to worsen until, after a full year confined to hospital, doctors told him in October 1939 he had two options. One was surgery, which was risky and did not guarantee a cure. The other was to pray.
His mentor, Fr Cornelius Hagerty of the Congregation of Holy Cross, urged him for pray Our Lady’s intercession, telling the gravely ill young man, “What she asks for and insists on she obtains. She has never failed anyone who had recourse to her with faith and perseverance.”
To the surprise of the doctors, he announced after a week of fervent prayer that he had been cured. After examining him, they confirmed his cure and he was allowed to return to his studies.
His brush with death gave him a new urgency in his prayer life and he became a devotee of Mary. He was ordained with his brother Tom on 15 June 1941 at Sacred Heart Church at the University of Notre Dame. Afterwards he recalled, “That day I gave my heart and soul in love to Mary.”
Fr Peyton believed he had regained his health for a reason – to foster devotion to Mary. He would spend the rest of his life dedicated to this mission.
In 1942 he officially founded ‘The Family Rosary’. On parish missions, he urged priests and parishioners alike to pray the Rosary daily and he followed up with letters of support.
In 1943 Fr Peyton led a Rosary prayer on a local radio station in Albany. This seems to have persuaded him that media could play an important role in his Rosary outreach.
Approaching the Mutual Broadcasting System in New York, a network of four radio stations, he managed to convince them to commission a programme for Mother’s Day 1945 aimed at families. With great audacity he convinced Bing Crosby to participate in the programme, along with President Harry Truman and Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York.
Poignantly, the programme broadcast the parents and sister of five Sullivan brothers, who drowned at sea during World War II, recite the Rosary. The programme finished with a plea by Fr Peyton for families to pray the Rosary together for peace.
The radio programme was wildly successful and so the Mutual Broadcasting System commissioned him to do more. Having founded Family Theatre Productions in Hollywood in 1947, he managed to get major Hollywood stars, including James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and Maureen O’Hara, to take part in his productions.
In addition to using the medium of radio, he later went on to produce films and television to reach people with his message of peace and unity.
By the 1980s, Christmas and Easter Television specials were featuring stars such as Princess Grace of Monaco, Plácido Domingo and Frank Sinatra.
The documentary ‘Guns & Rosaries’ recounts how Fr Peyton believed that the Rosary was the “ultimate WMD (weapon of mass devotion) that would destroy godless communism” and that was why the CIA secretly funded Fr Peyton’s Rosary Crusade in Latin America during the Cold War.
According to documentary producer Peter Kelly, “Fr Patrick Peyton was involved in a covert campaign, funded by CIA dollars, to combat leftist political movements in Latin America in the early 1960s.”
In the wake of the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the CIA launched Operation Brother Sam and targeted Brazil, with the Family Rosary Crusade as part of its anti-leftist drive.
By December 1963, Catholic groups were on the streets of Brazil expressing their dissatisfaction with the government of President Goulart. In March 1964 Brazilian generals staged a coup.
It was Pope Paul VI who stepped in and instructed Fr Peyton in 1965 not to accept further funding from the CIA.
By the early 1990s, Fr Peyton’s heart was failing and he underwent a number of medical procedures. He went to live with the Little Sisters of the Poor in San Pedro, California and in their care, on 3 June 1992, he passed away, unable to finish his final Rosary, but managing to say with is last breathe, “Mary, my Queen, my Mother.”
On Monday 18 December 2017, Pope Francis promulgated the decree recognising the heroic virtues of Fr Patrick Peyton.
Speaking on the centenary of Fr Peyton’s birth in Attymass, Co. Mayo, Cardinal Sean Brady told the assembled crowd, “Ireland has every reason to be proud of its world famous but humble countryman who achieved so much good by his life as a priest.”