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” on The American Catholic website can be read here.