Peyton, Patrick Joseph (1909–1992), Holy Cross priest and radio and television evangelist (‘the Rosary Priest’), was born 9 January 1909 in Carracastle, near Ballina, Co. Mayo, sixth of the nine children of John Peyton (1868–1934), county road repair worker, and Mary Gillard Peyton (1871–1939) of Rathreedane, Bonniconlon, Co. Mayo. Peyton was educated at Bofield and in Bonniconlon, but left school aged fifteen and returned to work on the family farm. While he was drawn to a vocation and applied to the Redemptorists, Capuchins and to the Society of African Missionaries in Cork, he lacked sufficient schooling to be admitted to the seminary. With no chance to pursue his vocation and little other opportunity for employment, Peyton and his brother Thomas sailed for America in 1928 to join their sisters who had emigrated earlier to Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Through his sister Ellen (Nellie), Peyton met Monsignor Paul Kelly, rector of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton, who employed him as a sexton and encouraged him to reconsider his vocation. With Kelly’s support Peyton and his brother Thomas enrolled at Saint Thomas High School in Scranton where they completed their freshman year. In early 1929 the brothers met a group of visiting priests from the Congregation of the Holy Cross and decided to continue their educations at the Holy Cross Minor Seminary at Notre Dame, Indiana, enrolling there in September 1929 with the warm endorsement of Monsignor Kelly.
The brothers professed their temporary vows with Holy Cross in 1933 and commenced studying for Bachelor of Arts degrees at Notre Dame University, followed by theological studies at the Holy Cross College on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC in 1937. In October 1938, Peyton was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and became seriously ill. He recovered in time to be ordained with his brother at Notre Dame on 1 June 1941. He credited his recovery to the Virgin Mary (to whom he prayed regularly) and vowed to devote his life to restoring the custom of the family rosary.
In his first assignment as chaplain to the Holy Cross brothers and Sisters of Mercy who taught at the Vincentian Institute in Albany, New York, he enlisted student help in starting his Family Rosary organisation. Believing that radio was the best medium for a national family rosary crusade, Peyton convinced Elsie Dick, director of religious programming at the Mutual Broadcasting Company, to give him a half-hour programme. It was launched on 13 May 1945, the day President Harry S. Truman declared a day of national thanksgiving to mark the end of the war in Europe. Peyton built on that success by recruiting prominent catholics to recite the rosary on air including Bing Crosby and the Thomas F. Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa, who had lost their five sons aboard the Juneau at Guadalcanal (11 November 1942). Expanding his programming to radio theatre, Peyton broadcast on 13 February 1947 the drama ‘Flight from home’ featuring Loretta Young and Don Ameche; it was the first in a twenty-year series. He recruited other Hollywood personalities when he moved into television and film; a young James Dean made his film debut in Family Theatre’s Hill Number 1. After Peyton completed a series of fifteen films about the mysteries of the rosary, a project largely funded by communities of American nuns, Pope Pius XII wrote to him commending him on their ‘apostolic character’.
In 1947 Peyton started organising prayer rallies in support of the Rosary Crusade in the US and Canada. Through his friendship with Loretta Young and her husband Thomas H. A. Lewis, an advertising executive with Young and Rubican, Peyton met the copywriter Al Scalpone who created the Crusade slogans ‘The family that prays together, stays together’ and ‘A world at prayer is a world at peace’. Peyton brought his Crusade to Europe (1952, 1953), Australia (1953), Southeast Asia (1954, 1959), Africa (1955) and Latin America (1959, 1960–1964). When he brought the Crusade to Ireland in 1954, the meeting in Knock drew 20,000 people. His 1985 Crusade in the Philippines attracted two million participants.
In Latin America, the Crusade had something of an anti-communist agenda. Peyton had long been outspoken against communism, which came to the notice of the CIA, through Peyton’s friend and benefactor J. Peter Grace. Grace made the case that the catholic church, through Peyton’s work, could steer Latin American countries away from nascent communism and secured US government funding for the Crusades throughout the early 1960s. The Congregation of Holy Cross became worried about the Crusade’s reliance on this funding and the potential reputational damage in Latin America should it become public knowledge. In 1966, after consultation with Pope Paul VI, Holy Cross officials demanded that the arrangement come to an end.
Peyton, who called himself ‘Our Lady’s salesman’, chronicled his Crusade in his 1967 autobiography All for Her. He had bypass surgery in 1978 for coronary artery disease, and in his later years, lived in the Little Sisters of the Poor retirement centre in San Pedro, California. He was named Mayo Man of the Year in 1987. On 15 August 1990, RTÉ aired a documentary on his life and work made during one of his visits to Mayo. He died 3 June 1992 at the age of eighty three and was buried in the community cemetery at Stonehill College, North Easton, Massachusetts.
In October 1998 the Father Peyton Memorial Centre was opened in Attymass, Co. Mayo, to house Peyton memorabilia and photographs. In March 2019 RTÉ broadcast a documentary Guns & rosaries which considered his involvement with the CIA in Latin America. Pray: the story of Patrick Peyton, a documentary by Family Theater Productions, was released in 2020.
Father Peyton’s cause for sainthood was officially opened by Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley on 8 December 1992, citing his ‘heroic virtues’. Pope Francis named him as ‘venerable’ on 18 December 2017. Richard Gribble CSC (Congregatio a Sancta Cruce), wrote Peyton’s official biography, American apostle of the family rosary, the Life of Patrick J. Peyton (2005). Peyton’s papers are at Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts.