In praise of deathbed conversions: John Wayne “I’m a Cardiac-Catholic”

John Wayne “I’m a Cardiac-Catholic”

by Brian Kelly August 24, 2009

That’s what he used to say jokingly when asked what his religion was. We all love John Wayne for his great films, but waiting to the last hour to come into the Church was highly un-commendable. In fact, according to his eldest son, Michael, Wayne had asked Father John Curtis, C.P., the chaplain of the hospital where he spent his last days, to convert him “the day before he died.” He must have had some powerful prayers being said for him because that is exactly what happened.

I know, the actor had three failed marriages — two to Mexican Catholics, one to a Peruvian. Nevertheless, his seven children were all raised Catholic, as were his twenty-one grandchildren. His friendship with Catholic director John Ford had a strong influence on him, as did, no doubt, the religious traditions and culture of his wives. Ford died from a very painful cancer and Wayne remarked about how impressed he was with the comfort his Catholic Faith gave him throughout the ordeal.

This brings me to the point of my column. John Ford was the cousin of Father Leonard Feeney. “Ford” was his adopted stage name, which he took when he went to join his brother, Francis, as an aspiring actor in Hollywood. It was Ford’s (should I say John Martin Feeney’s) close friendship with John Wayne (Marion Robert Morrison) that indirectly led to one of Father Feeney’s enthusiasts, a certain young nurse (whose name I am withholding as I have no way of contacting her for approval), being appointed as private care-giver to the Duke while he was in Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment of his cancer. That was perhaps six months before his death on June 11, 1979. I have no doubt that in private conversation this nurse put some good Catholic thoughts in the actor’s head.

Something else happened while John Wayne was in Mass General. Brother Hugh MacIsaac, M.I.C.M., who was himself dying from cancer at the time (he died exactly one month after the actor), sent two religious brothers from Saint Benedict Center on a mission to try and get to see the Duke and leave him some Catholic literature, a Miraculous Medal, and a rosary. Realizing that they’d never get past the front desk, they found a friendly janitor who revealed to them the room number where Mr. Wayne was convalescing. With this information they hopped on a freight elevator and pressed floor number 5. It was a non-stop flight. Accompanied by the give-away sound that an elevator buzzer makes when it reaches a destination, the doors opened and the two brothers stepped out into the hallway naively thinking that they’d just walk to Mr. Wayne’s room and slip in to see him. Well, this was America’s greatest actor after all, and he was in critical condition, and they had no appointment, no not even a name to drop by way of referral. Before they took five steps the good brothers were met by a team of security guards with walkie-talkies all a-buzz. Back they went into the same freight elevator with some pretty tough looking escorts who took them to their command post on the ground floor. Here they were given over to a very affable officer who apologized for any rudeness once he realized the brothers really were Catholic religious. He took the materials that they had hoped to give the actor and he “promised” — that was his word — that he would see to it that Mr. Wayne received them. At the time the brothers did not know that an acquaintance of theirs was serving as John Wayne’s nurse. If the head of security kept his word, the Duke had some extra actual graces delivered to him at Mass General by a couple of stealthy disciples of Father Leonard Feeney

The interesting article “John Wayne: Cardiac Catholic” [and video clips] on The American Catholic website ( ):

John Wayne died on June 11, 1979. Like many Americans at the time I felt as if a personal friend had died. Growing up, Wayne was a part of my childhood both on TV and at the local theater. Remarkably, more than three decades after his demise, he still routinely appears among the top ten favorite actors in polls. For three and a half decades he dominated American film screens and became the archetypal Western hero. Frequently savaged by film critics in his life, something which bothered him little, his appearance as a Centurion in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told, the video clip which begins this post, was a special target, Wayne’s work has endured the test of time. A staunch conservative, Wayne upheld a love of country when such love was popular and when it was unpopular. Eventually he became a symbol of America, recognizable around the globe. What is less known about Wayne is his religion, and, at the end, his conversion to Catholicism.

Wayne had a strong faith in God. This is illustrated well in this video clip from The Alamo, a film which was Wayne’s pet project from beginning to end.

Sadly this faith did not move him to moral conduct in one important area of his life. His pursuit of women led to two divorces and his estrangement from his third wife. Unlike some sinners in his profession however, Wayne never pretended that his conduct was in any way right and moral, and he blamed only himself for the wreck his lust made of his personal life.

Ironically enough, each of his wives was Catholic. All of his seven kids, the first being born in 1934 and the last in 1966, were raised Catholic, and for virtually all of his adult life Wayne paid tuition to Catholic schools, as each of his children received a Catholic education. Wayne was deeply impressed by the results, as none of his kids, as he said, “ever game me a minute’s trouble”, and he gave a large share of the credit to the Catholic schools. His wives were Hispanics, and Wayne had many close friends in Panama and Mexico, and he remarked as to how he envied the certainty that their Catholic faith gave them. When his close friend and director John Ford died of cancer, Wayne also noted the serenity and courage with which the Catholic Ford faced a painful death.

When asked about his religion Wayne would either say he was a Presbyterian, although he never attended Presbyterian services as an adult, or a “Cardiac Catholic”, a humorous reference to the fact, as any priest can attest to, that many a non-Catholic facing death wishes to go out embracing Mother Church.

For years, Wayne knew that his kids wanted him to convert. He felt guilty that he hadn’t been a better father to them and when he fought his final courageous battle with cancer he decided it was time. On his deathbed Wayne was received into the Church, one more laborer hired at the last moment who receives the full day’s wage, one more lost lamb bounding into the sheepfold as darkness descends.

Wayne played many roles in his life. At the end, acting was done and Wayne faced God as a penitent Catholic. May he be now enjoying the Beatific Vision.

Another video clip of John Wayne not related to this topic but making the point with a punch (after being pointed with a shotgun): “Life’s tough. It’s even tougher when you’re stupid!”:

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