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RTÉ documentary on Hollywood rosary priest who became CIA secret agent

Fr Patrick Peyton, subject of tonight's documentary Guns and Rosaries. Picture: RTÉ

A PRIEST who dedicated his life to promoting the rosary but also became an unlikely friend to Hollywood TV stars and a secret agent for the CIA is the subject of an RTÉ documentary tonight.

The unusual story of Fr Patrick Peyton, a Mayo-born priest, will be told in Guns & Rosaries.

Fr Peyton's devotion to the rosary began after an encounter with serious illness while studying for the priesthood in America.

He embraced the media age, starting on radio in the mid-1940s, and with his slogan ‘the family that prays together stays together', went on to build a media empire in TV and movies.

He recruited – or cajoled – scores of Hollywood stars to join his ‘rosary crusade’ and went on to stage rosary rallies across the world attracting millions.

Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Edward G Robinson, Maureen O'Hara, Loretta Young, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck were among those who joined him.

Comedy stalwart Bob Newhart, one of the last of the Hollywood greats who worked for Fr Peyton, told RTÉ that he just had to do whatever Fr Peyton said "otherwise I’d go to hell!" .

His homecoming tour during the marian year of 1954 attracted over 400,000 Irish people to go and see the rosary priest from Hollywood.

In a further twist, producer Peter Kelly revealed that Fr Peyton became entangled with American foreign policy during the Cold War.

He said the priest's ability as a PR and media guru with the capacity to sell an ideological message was noticed by the White House and the CIA.

"Fr Peyton’s call to prayer could become a rallying cry against ‘Godless communism'. We now know that Fr Patrick Peyton was involved in a covert campaign, funded by CIA dollars, to combat leftist political movements in Latin America in the early 1960s," explained Mr Kelly.

"The Pope eventually forced Peyton to decline further CIA funding but he continued his media work until he died in 1992."

The Holy Cross Family Ministries (the foundation established by Fr Peyton) continues media work for the promotion of family prayer and there is a prayer centre and museum to the memory of Fr Peyton in his home place of Attymass, Mayo.

The cause for his canonisation was launched just a few years after his death and he was declared venerable in 2017, meaning he is just one step away from sainthood.

Guns & Rosaries, 10.15pm, RTE One

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