EASTON - In the 1940s and '50s, the Rev. Patrick Peyton crisscrossed the country preaching the blessings of the rosary with zeal. To this day, Roman Catholics journey to his gravesite here to drape rosary beads over his headstone and pray that the "Rosary Priest" is someday canonized.
Yesterday, dozens of believers recited the rosary near Peyton's grave as part of a three-day commemoration of the 16th anniversary of his death, remembering the Irish-born preacher who is credited with coining the slogan "the family that prays together, stays together."
Under a strong sun in a small, brick-walled cemetery for priests, worshipers prayed for forgiveness, delicately running rosaries through their fingers as they bowed their heads. Near Peyton's grave, where visitors exchanged previously left crucifixes with their own, they said "Hail Marys" and asked for Peyton's canonization.
The Rev. Leo Polselli, chaplain at the Father Patrick Peyton Center in Easton, said Peyton's life of single-minded devotion to the Mother Mary and the power of prayer, especially the rosary, resonates.
"His message today is as important today as it was during his life on earth," he said.
In the 1940s, Peyton founded what is now known as Holy Cross Family Ministries, an international collective of parish missions headquartered in Easton that is dedicated to Peyton's mission and is sponsoring the cause for his sainthood.
The Rev. John Phalen, president of Holy Cross Family Ministries, said the canonization process is complicated but his supporters are optimistic.
The campaign for Peyton's sainthood began seven years ago, when Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, then head of the Fall River Diocese, made him an official candidate. Since then, clergy at Holy Cross have researched Peyton's life and sought testimonies. Since Peyton's death, hundreds have reportedly sought his intercession, and Holy Cross advocates say some have experienced "remarkable healing for which there is no medical explanation."
For Peyton to become a saint, the Vatican must be convinced he was responsible for two miracles since his death.
Phalen, who knew Peyton well, said he was single-minded in his devotion.
"He would talk only about the rosary and his relationship with Mary," he said. "No small talk."
When a religious gathering broke up, priests could either ride in a regular car, or if they chose to ride with Peyton, "the rosary car," where the sole topic of conversation was reverence for Mary, Phalen recalled with a chuckle.
A charismatic, distinguished figure who stood well over 6 feet tall, Peyton evoked no small measure of admiration, even awe, fellow priests said.
"He was larger than life," said the Rev. Arthur J. Colgan, provincial superior for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. "He was a striking presence, and a very inspiring one."
Nearby, flowers and a variety of rosaries graced Peyton's headstone, where visitors paid respects.
Colgan said Peyton was ahead of his time in using mass media to spread his message, showing no lack of aggression in maximizing publicity.
"He would knock on any door without any shame," he said.
For more than 50 years, Peyton led immense rallies worldwide and promoted prayer to millions of people through films and national radio and television programs, often enlisting celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, James Dean, and Frank Sinatra.
The sixth of nine children to a poor Irish family in County Mayo, Peyton grew up reciting the rosary each day. He came to the United States in 1928 at age 19, and studied at Holy Cross Seminary at the University of Notre Dame. As a seminarian, he contracted tuberculosis that doctors believed was incurable. But he recovered and credited his healing to Mary, said several priests who knew him.
The Rev. Hugh Cleary, superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Rome, recalled cutting Peyton's hair while in seminary, always with a bit of a gulp and a quiet prayer for it to go well.
"I was afraid I'd clip his ears," he said, laughing at the memory. "I was always in awe of him, because he was so single-minded and persuasive. Everyone thought he was a saint while he was still alive."