The Little-Known Story of John Wayne’s Deathbed Conversion to Catholicism
Most people know of John Wayne’s incredible, five-decade-long career in Hollywood, in which he variously acted in, directed, and produced over 160 films (about half of which were Westerns), such as True Grit, The Longest Day, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
What many people do not know is the story of how Wayne converted to Catholicism in the final days before he died of cancer.
John Wayne was born as Marion Robert Morrison in 1907 in a small town in Iowa to a Presbyterian family. He was raised in the church, believed in God, and was taught the Bible.
After being dropped from his college football team due to injury, he first got into the movie industry helping with props and working as an extra. Within a decade, he had broken into the mainstream and became a big movie star.
His first major exposure to Catholicism came from his first wife, Josephine Alicia Saenz. They married in 1933 and had four children together. She was Catholic, so they got married in a Catholic church and he agreed to raise the children Catholic. Josephine was something of a socialite, and frequently had dinner parties with other Catholics in Hollywood, including priests and nuns. They sent their children to Catholic schools. In general, he was pulled into Catholic cultural circles and spent a lot of time at Catholic churches and around Catholics.
Unfortunately, they got divorced after 12 years in 1945. However, as a Catholic, Josephine did not remarry again until after Wayne’s death – and she kept praying that he would convert to Catholicism.
He got married two more times, and had several extra-marital affairs, sadly. It was with his third wife, Pilar Pallete, though, that he had the longest relationship (25 years) and was married to when he died.
Pilar was also Catholic (how she was allowed to marry a man already married twice, who knows). Soon after they got married, a Catholic priest was blessing the rooms in their house.
Despite his relationship problems, Wayne remained a spiritual person. He would hand write letters to God as a way of praying. And he refused to be a part of movies that he thought were immoral during a time when immorality was rising in acceptance in Hollywood.
He became a good friend of Archbishop Tomas Clavel, who served part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles after being exiled from his archdiocese in Panama in 1968. Their friendship further confirmed to him that he wanted to join the Catholic Church.
Then, in 1979, as he was dying of cancer and surrounded by his family in his home, he finally decided to join the Catholic Church. He requested for Archbishop Clavel to come to his house, but he was too ill to come, and so another archbishop in the diocese was sent.
Wayne was received into the Catholic Church and then died just two days later.
Why did he wait until his deathbed to convert? His grandson explained that Wayne was regretful about not becoming a Catholic sooner, blaming “a busy life.”
But he made it in eventually. It’s never too late to come to God!
May he rest in peace!