Archbishop Fulton Sheen was known for his “celebrity converts” — famous people whom he had a role in bringing into the Catholic Church. Among them were the automobile executive Henry Ford Jr. and the diplomat Clare Booth Luce, wife of Time/Life publisher Henry Luce. Less well remembered today — due in part to our fading memory of the Cold War — but equally sensational at the time was the conversion of Louis Budenz, editor of the Communist Party USA’s newspaper, The Daily Worker. Budenz entered the Church with his wife, Margaret, and their three children on October 10, 1945.
In a way, Margaret’s conversion is the more remarkable. Louis was baptized and came from a Catholic family, but he abandoned the Faith and devoted himself to his new religion, social reform. Margaret had little religious background and decided during her adolescent years that she did not believe in God. She remembered setting foot in a Catholic Church only once in her life before she and Louis began attending church when she was in her mid-30s: When she was growing up in Pittsburgh, she accompanied her Catholic friend to a novena service at the girl’s parish.
Those who approach the story of Louis and Margaret knowing the end can discern the handwriting on the wall. Their devotion to workers’ rights and their interpretation of domestic policy and world events led them to join the Communist Party in 1935, but they were not the type of sycophants that U.S. Communist Party chief Earl Browder (and his overlord, Joseph Stalin) demanded. They were talented and dedicated Communists, which propelled their rise within the Party’s ranks, but their commitment was not total and undivided. Deprived of the graces of a Catholic marriage, they were nonetheless devoted to each other in a relationship of genuine mutuality and love. This devotion was ultimately incompatible with Communist ideology.
Communists in the United States (as elsewhere) were expected to put Party above all, including family. Although the Budenzes were model Communists in other ways, they never quite fit the Communist vision of family life. Neither Louis nor Margaret adopted the loose interpretation of marital fidelity espoused by many of their comrades. Margaret was expected to work for the Party outside the home, but she always put the welfare of her children first. When forced to choose between her obligations to her children and the demands of the Party, she chose her children, risking the ire of the Communist leadership. When Louis and Margaret’s love came to fruition in their third child, their Communist friends were incredulous. One of the Party’s top operatives urged Louis to abort the baby (which would have been illegal at the time). Another child would put too much financial and emotional strain on the couple, he said, and might result in Margaret’s “becoming ‘bourgeois.'”
The Budenzes spurned this advice, and Margaret delivered their third daughter, Justine, at a Catholic hospital in New York. She wrote “atheist” in the blank for “religion” on the hospital admission form. Margaret recounted that the sister on duty joked that “she would like to send me home with a religion as well as a new baby.” Margaret wasn’t amused.
Being a former Catholic, one of Louis’s assigned tasks was to infiltrate the Catholic Church in the United States so as to soften its anti-Communist stance. Among his targets was the well-known radio personality and eloquent anti-Communist, Msgr. Fulton Sheen. Budenz got nowhere. At a dinner meeting in 1936, Monsignor Sheen refused to engage Louis on the issue of Communism’s merits. Instead, the monsignor invited Louis to “kneel down and let me hear your confession.” The two parted on less than amicable terms.
But grace gnawed at Louis. Once, during his Communist days, he wrote “Catholic” as his religion when checking into a hospital. Margaret noticed, was shocked, and supposed that he was jesting. They only spoke about it years later. Louis said that, even though he was officially atheist at the time, he did not wish to die without the consolation of the sacraments. It was but one marker on the long road back to faith.
When the signs of Louis’s return to Catholicism became clear, Margaret struggled to accept it. She remained certain of their love and unity, and so she applied herself to understanding the religion to which he was attracted. It wasn’t easy, but the dialectic of communist materialism gradually gave way to the harmony of faith and reason as the riches of Catholicism were opened up to her under the tutelage of Monsignor Sheen and the influence of her own diligent research.
The day of their reception into the Church and the blessing of their marriage was hectic. Because of the potentially violent consequences of severing ties with the Communist Party, the Budenzes could not let on to their comrades what they were in the process of doing. Monsignor Sheen announced it to the press on the day they professed Catholicism and publicly renounced Communism. Their residence in suburban New York would become a dangerous and inhospitable place after their conversion became known, so after the ceremony in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, they hid in a hotel until they could catch a train out of the state. Their destination was South Bend, where Monsignor Sheen had arranged a teaching position for Louis at the University of Notre Dame.
Margaret became a faithful Catholic, but that did not mean that her life was free of difficulties. She and Louis were viewed with suspicion by many of their fellow Catholics and with hostility by most of their former acquaintances. The U.S. government perceived in Louis a golden opportunity to uncover American Communist personnel and Soviet secrets, but it took his cooperation for granted and often ignored his and his family’s welfare. Margaret cared for Louis through a long and debilitating illness, which forced her to miss the wedding of one of their daughters and which ended with his death in 1972.
She felt out of place in many Catholic circles. The doctrines, devotions, and vocabulary of Catholicism seemed foreign to her for many years. As a woman of intellectual bent, well-informed and engaged in politics and world affairs, she did not converse easily with the South Bend housewives with whom she now associated. She was once taken aback when a Catholic lady peremptorily refused to eat the lemon chiffon pie Margaret served for lunch, insisting that the gelatin it contained made it unfit for Lenten consumption. (The local priest was called in to adjudicate and, after citing the relevant passages of Church law, rendered judgment by devouring two large pieces.)
Although she tried to understand all things Catholic, she never reconciled herself to the concept of consecrated religious life; she was “emotionally torn to pieces” when one of her daughters decided to enter the convent.
Thus Margaret’s in some ways extraordinary biography nonetheless fits a pattern that is recognizable to most Catholic mothers. The constant in her life was devotion to family. She admired and served her husband, bore and cared for her children. This selflessness, it seems clear, paved the way for her journeyfrom atheism to Christianity. After a long career as a Catholic high school teacher following Louis’s death, she passed away in 2002 at the age of 94.
“God’s grace! What a mystery!,” Archbishop Sheen began his foreword to Margaret’s autobiography, Streets (1979). A mystery, indeed. Remember the parish novena Margaret attended as a child? The preacher that evening was a relatively unknown but unusually gifted young priest from the Diocese of Peoria whose name meant nothing to her at that point. He was Fulton Sheen.