How Saintly Intercession Led Danny Thomas to Found Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

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How Saintly Intercession Led Danny Thomas to Found Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

By Movieguide® Staff

Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.

With numerous guest roles in comedy series like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and GET SMART, Danny Thomas was a familiar face on TV from the 1950s all the way up to the eighties.

His presence even graced a few classic Hollywood features such as I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951), where he starred alongside Doris Day. Thomas also took up producing programs like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and RANGO.

But what went on “behind the scenes,” so to speak, in his personal life? He was a man who took his faith seriously and, like any of us, had struggles to grapple with in his day-to-day life.

One of the comedian’s most remarkable contributions to society had little to do with entertaining people. When he founded and opened the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1962, it was an occasion which finally fulfilled a promise to a saint which he made many years prior.

The hospital that today has a global network of institutions striving to improve the health of children battling cancer resulted from the strong Catholic faith of its founder.

As Thomas wrote in 1981, “I once vowed to Saint Jude that I’d build a shrine in his name if he’d help me through a difficult time in my life.”

The actor relates that, for him, turning to the saints for aid was only natural since from an early age, his family had taught him the values of his faith.

He explains:

My parents had come from Lebanon, a country where shrines dedicated to favorite patron saints are familiar sights. Often these shrines are simply statues, or little places where you can stop to meditate and pray.

We Catholics, of course, do not worship these patron saints—we worship only God—but we do look upon them as special intercessors with God…

Asking for God’s help through the intercession of the saints was commonplace in the household of his youth. The pseudonym he fabricated for showbiz, “Danny Thomas,” borrowed the names of his youngest and eldest siblings.

His little brother Danny had a rat bite inflicted upon him while still only an infant. Physicians concluded that the baby was dying.

Through vigilant prayer, in which his mother told God that she would gather alms for the poor should her son regain health, Danny Thomas’ little brother and namesake survived and got well.

This incident, together with the unfailing trust in God exhibited by his mother, gave the future comedian a strong sense of faith and, perhaps, of miracles too.

Another event that touched Danny Thomas and served as a testament to what strong faith can lead to happened at a difficult period in his life.

It was 1940. Having married his wife, Rosemarie, who was now pregnant, Danny felt the weight of supporting his growing family fall upon his shoulders.

The Club Morocco, where he earned two dollars for a night shift, was going out of business. His dream of building a career in entertainment began to appear less and less viable, and he needed to bring in money in order to provide for his family.

Amid this whirlwind of emotions and unsolved problems, he went to work at the Club Morocco as usual. But that evening there was a good deal of happy commotion. A man came in making a great to-do about the outcome of a family emergency of his own. All the while, he was handing out prayer cards. 

Looking back on it, the actor reminisces:

His wife was in a hospital where she’d been facing an operation for a deadly cancer. All night long this man had knelt on the cold marble floor of the hospital and prayed the same prayer over and over again.

When the sun came up in the morning the doctors called him in to report that, inexplicably, miraculously, his wife’s cancer had disappeared.

In Catholicism, saints are commemorated on feast days and many of them serve as patrons for particular professions or situations.

For the rest of the night, Danny Thomas couldn’t keep his mind off the man and his fantastic story. What followed, Thomas recalls, prompted him to ask the patron saint of impossible cases for his help:

The next day I went into a church to pray, and when I reached into my pocket for a coin, I found the card the man had given me. Then and there I felt moved to make my vow.

He didn’t wish for help in gaining money or popularity. He simply asked to be led along a clear path by which to live. If his prayer would be granted through the intercession to St. Jude, he vowed to establish a shrine to the saint.

As it turned out, there was certainly reason to hope. He had an impulse to travel to Chicago, where he found work with which he remained preoccupied for two years. His promise to Jude had fallen off his list of priorities.

But as he continued engaging the Catholic culture at various Chicagoan venues, it dawned on him that Jude was following him.

Simple things served as signs reminding Danny of his prayerful promise. First, it was picking up a pamphlet he found in a pew that included a nine-day devotion to St. Jude. Then it was the discovery of the first national shrine to the saint – which was located in Chicago.

“Chicago was Saint Jude’s town, too!” Thomas writes. “He wanted me to know it.”

While he did no longer neglected his vow to St. Jude, Danny struggled with a deep feeling of uncertainty about just what sort of shrine he was called to construct.

Finally, the comedian experienced a “horrifying” dream one night in which a severely wounded boy was taken to the hospital, where the doctors refused to take action – resulting in the child’s death.

The dream remained engrained upon his memory, and it reminded him of the near-death situation his youngest brother had been in all those years earlier. Gradually, Danny Thomas’ idea of the St. Jude shrine took shape as a children’s hospital.

The actor noted that there was perhaps a bit of comforting irony in the fact that St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes, should be the namesake of an institution where children with “incurable” diseases could come with hope for healing.

Thomas fondly recollects how his faith and his family’s faith brought him to a monumental moment in which he could help show God’s abiding love for His children:

Today when I look at the hospital that Saint Jude brought into being, when I see the hope that the Saint of the Hopeless has brought to thousands of parents and their youngsters, I am as certain as my mother was certain, that to right despair is to affirm our faith in God and in the love He has for all of us.