Father Peyton was one of nine children born to poor but very devout parents in Co Mayo about 20 miles from Knock. The Family Rosary was central to their lives and every night without exception the brothers and sisters gathered round with their parents to recite the Rosary.
Patrick’s greatest wish was to become a priest and as an altar boy he often stayed back to serve at a second Sunday Mass. Sadly because of poverty he was unable to continue his schooling to the stage of entering a seminary and the only option open to him was to emigrate. Three of his sisters had already left for America and in 1928 at the age of 19 Patrick and his brother Tom travelled to Cobh to make the journey so many Irish men and women had made before them leaving behind a heart broken mother and father. “I saw my mother for the last time. She waved her handkerchief until the train disappeared from sight. My heart was crushed with sorrow and tears blinded me.”
When the two boys arrived in America times were hard, it was just the beginning of the Wall Street Crash and work was almost impossible to find. However Patrick’s sister got him a job as sacristan in St Peter’s Church in Scranton Pennsylvania and it was with the help of Monsignor Kelly the parish priest that both he and Tom went to study in Holy Cross Seminary. Three years later both were admitted to St Joseph’s Novitiate at Notre Dame graduating in 1937.
Patrick’s dream of ordination along with his brother suffered a drastic setback when he contracted tuberculosis, which back then was considered to be incurable. Close to death, the doctors told him his only hope was to pray and he turned to Our Blessed Mother praying for a full recovery. He promised her that if he lived he would dedicate his ministry to her and to the family rosary. His prayers were answered and his doctors were amazed at his recovery. Describing what happened Patrick said “I was certain Our Blessed Mother was taking part in my healing. I am not describing a miracle. I’m giving witness to the power of Mary’s intercession and the quiet, unsensational way she works.” The brothers had set their hearts on being ordained to the priesthood together however because Patrick’s illness set his studies back by a year it looked as if this wouldn’t be possible until something truly amazing happened. In May 1941 he received a special dispensation granting permission for immediate ordination and it came in the form of a cablegram from Rome stating “Special dispensations are granted for the immediate ordination to the priesthood of seminarian Patrick Peyton.” And so the brothers were both ordained on 15th June 1941 in the Church of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame.
The following year with the support of the bishops throughout US Father Patrick Peyton founded the Family Rosary in Albany, New York and embarked on a sensational crusade to promote it with a free half-hour programme on the largest radio network in the United States scheduled for Mother’s Day 13th May 1942. With World War II just ended and VE day declared on 8th May, President Truman declared 13th May a Day of Thanksgiving which added to the successful launch of the Rosary Crusade.
“God answered me in a way I would never have dreamed of: He sent the most famous Hollywood stars to do the work.” said Fr Peyton. These included some of the best known movie stars of the time such as Bing Crosby, Loretta Young, Grace Kelly, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Durante, Gene Kelly and Charlton Heston.
The Crusade was a worldwide success and his message ‘The Family that prays together stays together,’ is still quoted today. He drew unprecedented numbers to each gathering. There were 83,000 at Wembley Stadium, 75,000 in New York, 80,000 in Melbourne and more than a quarter of a million gathered to hear him speak in San Francisco. An even bigger crowd of 2 million attended the Crusade in both San Paolo and in Manila. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Rosary Crusade came to Ireland and throughout May and June rallies were held over the length and breadth of Ireland from Galway to Ballymena, from Waterford to Downpatrick. Finally the crusade was brought to a close on 15th August appropriately at Our Lady’s Island, Co Wexford.
Sadly his parents had both died before his first visit home but Father Peyton never forgot his Irish roots and made an annual pilgrimage to Knock. His last visit was in December 1991 and he died the following year aged 83. Father Peyton is currently being considered for sainthood, the Cause of Canonisation was announced in 2001 by the Bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, Masachusetts Bishop Sean Patrick O’Malley (now Cardinal of Boston). Father Peyton now has the well deserved title ‘Servant of God.’