With the Feast of St. Jude fast approaching, let’s explore how Danny Thomas, the affable entertainer and early television personality, became the best known of St. Jude’s devotees. Raised in a Lebanese Catholic family in Toledo, Thomas had witnessed personal vows to saints. His own mother, when faced with a sick baby, got on her knees, begging “Please God, spare him and I will vow to you [that] I will beg pennies from door to door for a whole year to give to the poor. Spare my baby.” As a young man trying to break into radio with a baby on the way in 1937, Thomas recalled “I was so down-and-out in Detroit…I accidentally learned about the almost unknown St. Jude Thaddeus.” A drunk stranger shared the story of his wife’s miraculous cure from cancer, following the man’s prayers to St. Jude. The man told Thomas of his bargains with St. Jude. “If he answered my prayers, I would tell everyone I could about this forgotten saint.” So inspired, Thomas made his own bargain with Jude: “I asked him to show me my way in life, and I vowed to build him a shrine.”
Thomas moved to Chicago, changed his name (from Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz), and soon his career took off. Tellingly, Danny Thomas had yet to visit the national shrine in South Chicago; the devotion’s aura reached him through word of mouth. At a church near his northside Chicago apartment in 1942, he found a pamphlet announcing a novena at the shrine. “I’m suddenly finding out that he already had a shrine in the very city to which Fate had taken me.” As Thomas grew more successful, with a good network of Hollywood stars, he acted on Cardinal Samuenl Stritch’s suggestion to raise funds for a children’s hospital to fulfill his promise to St. Jude. In his memoir, Thomas dedicated seven passages to his evolving St. Jude devotion, but never mentioned visiting the shrine itself. The Claretians did develop a relationship with the successful star who headlined fund-raisers and appeared in publicity photos at the shrine. Danny Thomas even starred in a 1959 promotional film for the Claretian Missionaries called For Heaven’s Sake, filmed on the set of his popular show Make Way for Danny. Fortunately, the Claretian Missionaries Archives holds copies of the film.
Deborah E. Kanter wrote Chicago Católico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican (University of Illinois Press, 2020). Her forthcoming book focuses on the Claretian Missionaries in the US and the creation of a national Latino ministry, 1902-2020. All quotations here from Danny Thomas, with Bill Davidson, Make Room for Danny, New York: G.P Putnam's Sons, 1991.