'Sheen Affair' on tap for Somerville election

  • October 10, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - A slice of American-Canadian relations, examined in the battle to get Bishop Fulton Sheen on Canadian TV back in the 1950s, will be the subject of the annual Somerville Lecture on Christianity and Communications.

Professor Mark McGowan, historian, author and principal at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, will present the annual lecture on Nov. 6 at Toronto’s Newman Centre and Nov. 7 at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.
“Bishop Sheen set the template for televangelists,” McGowan explains. “Marshall McLuhan said the medium was the message; Sheen was the message.”

The auxiliary bishop of New York became famous in the 1950s for his radio and TV broadcasts. Even before his smash hit show, Life is Worth Living, appeared on network TV, he had already spent 32 years on NBC Radio’s The Catholic Hour.

His TV show drew an audience of 5.5 million people, won an Emmy award and earned a cover article in Time magazine. At the time he was designated by a Gallup Poll as one of the 10 most admired men in the United States.

Yet in Canada, Sheen was known but not seen. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in 1952, enjoying a monopoly of the TV airwaves, refused to carry Sheen’s broadcast, arguing that it was too American and anti-Communist.

The incident sparked a three-year struggle that McGowan says touched on Canadian identity, Catholic-Protestant relations and the commercialization of the national airwaves. The “Sheen Affair” also suggested Canadian insecurity with the new medium of television and its potential Americanization.

Using video clips from Sheen’s shows, McGowan will explore the incident in his talk. One of Canada’s leading authorities on Catholics in Canada, McGowan also speaks often in national media on Vatican affairs. He is author of The Waning of the Green: Catholics, the Irish and Identity in Toronto (1887-1922), and Michael Power: The Struggle to Build the Catholic Church on the Canadian Frontier, the first full-length biography of Toronto’s first bishop.

The Somerville Lecture on Christianity and Communications was inaugurated in 2001 by The Catholic Register, in partnership with the St. Jerome’s Centre for Catholic Experience and the Newman Centre. It has featured such distinguished speakers as Toronto Star columnist and author Richard Gwyn, spiritual writer Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, Vatican journalist John Allen Jr. and Janet Somerville, former general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.

The lecture is named after Henry Somerville, the longest-serving editor of The Catholic Register. His term ran from 1933 to his death in 1953.

Both lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. and are free and open to anyone. The Newman Centre is at 89 St. George St., Toronto. St. Jerome’s is on the campus of the University of Waterloo. For more information call (416) 934-3410, ext. 407.

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