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Sheed, Francis Joseph (1897–1981)

by Edmund Campion

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Francis Joseph Sheed (1897-1981), Catholic publisher, author and street orator, was born on 20 March 1897 in Sydney, elder son of New South Wales-born John Sheed, a draughtsman in the Lands Department and a Marxist, and his English-born wife Mary (Minnie), née Maloney.  His father’s family was Presbyterian Scots, his mother’s Catholic Irish.  Baptised Catholic, Frank was sent to the Balmain Methodist Church—throughout his life he sang Methodist hymns with gusto—but remained a surreptitious practising Catholic.  Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1917; LL.B, 1926), he became a capable scholar.

Interrupting his studies in 1920, Sheed travelled to London, where he encountered a novel endeavour, the Catholic Evidence Guild.  Soapbox oratory was a significant element of popular culture and the guild maintained a pitch at Speakers’ Corner in London, where lay Catholics expounded the faith.  Sheed proved to be a natural orator and each Sunday, wherever he was, he would aim to speak in the street about Catholicism until, in his seventies, his doctor told him to stop.  It has been estimated that he gave seven thousand speeches from a soapbox.

In the Catholic Evidence Guild he met Mary (Maisie) Josephine Ward, eight years his senior and the daughter of a notable English Catholic family.  They married with Catholic rites on 27 April 1926 in the Chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury, Cowes.  That year they established a publishing firm, Sheed & Ward, in London.  Catholic self-confidence, energised by Cardinal John Henry Newman, was building a powerful literary wave, which the new firm was positioned to catch.  In 1933 they opened an office in New York and became the most influential Catholic publishers in the English-speaking world.  Sheed thought of publishing as a vocation and took no wages from the firm; instead he supported the family by lecturing on the American Catholic circuit.  Staying with local clergy, he gained accurate knowledge of the market.

Sheed began to fill gaps in the Sheed & Ward list with his own books.  Street speaking had taught him how to expound theology with clarity, which became a hallmark of his writing:  he did not hide his light under polysyllables.  He wrote sixteen books and many smaller works, edited half a dozen collections and translated Christian classics.  Theology and Sanity (1946) was his masterpiece, a work written to engage the laity in serious theological study.  In 1956 the Holy See prompted the Catholic University of Lille to award him a doctorate in divinity, then a rare honour for a lay theologian.

Perpetually cheerful and looking like W. C. Fields, Sheed could do a music-hall turn on any occasion.  This did not impede his shrewdness as a publisher:  after World War II his list carried the new theologians who would write the theology of Vatican II (1962-65).  In 1956 he and his wife embarked on a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand.  Like her husband, Maisie Ward was a formidable talent-spotter, alert to new movements in the church, such as the worker-priests in France and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in the United States of America.  Their attempts to open an Australian branch were unsuccessful.

In 1962 the Sheeds moved permanently to New Jersey, USA.  They sold the firm in 1973 but Frank retained the title of publisher emeritus.  He published an autobiography, The Church and I (1974).  Predeceased by his wife (1975) and survived by their daughter and son, he died on 20 November 1981 at Jersey City and was buried in the Holy Name cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Ward, Unfinished Business (1964)
  • M. Ward, To and Fro on the Earth (1973)
  • W. Sheed, Frank and Maisie (1985)
  • D. Greene, The Living of Maisie Ward (1997)
  • American National Biography Online (2000)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • New York Times, 29 January 1975, p 38
  • New York Times, 21 November 1981, p 19.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Sheed, Francis Joseph (1897–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sheed-francis-joseph-15412/text26620, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 1 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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