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Fr John Sullivan SJ (1861-1933)

30 November, 1999

A hundred years ago this year – on 28th July 1907 – Father John Sullivan was ordained a priest in the Jesuit chapel in Milltown Park. Conor Harper SJ writes about his life and influence.

One hundred years ago, on Sunday, 28 July 1907, Father John Sullivan was ordained priest of the Society of Jesus in the Community Chapel at Milltown Park. As we remember him today there is a jubilee ring to our celebrations. Despite the passing of a century of years, Father John is remembered with love and devotion by many. The attractive power of real holiness continues its force across the years. His reputation for prayer and channeling God’s healing power draws his friends closer to the source of all grace in our lives.

Eccles Street
The story of his life begins at 41 Eccles Street, Dublin on 8 May 1861. He was born into the privileged world of an elegance and grace of a bygone age. His father, who would later be Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was already showing the promise of a distinguished legal career. Edward Sullivan was born in Mallow, Co. Cork and his mother, Bessie Josephine Bailey, was from a landowning family of Passage West, Co. Cork.

John’s life was marked by several very different phases. It would be worthwhile to cast a glance at three of these stages: his early life; the hidden years; his life as a Jesuit.

Early life
If one were to stand on the doorstep of 41 Eccles Street and absorb the immediate surroundings, one could not help remarking the impressive vista and elegant surroundings of the late Georgian period. The striking steeple of the former St. George’s Church of Ireland dominates the horizon as we look towards the city centre. It was here in this beautiful church that the young John was baptized on 15 July 1861. (It was also on this street that James Joyce found inspiration for his character of Leopold Bloom in his Ulysses.)

Shortly afterwards, the Sullivan family moved south of the Liffey to Fitzwilliam Place. It was here that John grew up in a world of wealth and social privilege. By his own account, he had ‘a blessed childhood in a happy, loving home’. John’s father was a Protestant and his mother a Catholic so, in keeping with the customs of that time, John was brought up in the Protestant faith of his father.

At the age of eleven, John followed his elder brothers to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. He always loved his old school. Towards the end of his life, he recorded in the Preface to the biography of his fellow Portoran, John Naughton Steele that he ‘had come to Portora bathed in tears’ but when, some years later, when the time came to leave Portora, he ‘shed more plentiful tears’.

It is possible that John’s first spiritual awakenings took place during these very impressionable years. It is known that he greatly appreciated his headmaster, Dr. William Steele, who had a profound influence on his spiritual development. The beauties of Lough Erne and the old monastic settlement of Devenish Island always held a special fascination for him and they must have had a deep influence on his reflection and meditation.

John is still remembered in his beloved Portora and his name features prominently on the Royal Exhibitioners Honours Board, appropriately in Steele Hall. Another notable name is that of his fellow Dubliner and neighbour, Oscar Wilde. The young Sullivan, on leaving Portora, won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin. He had a most distinguished time there – winning a Gold Medal in Classics which is preserved in the Museum at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare.

Memories of his contemporaries at Trinity reveal him to be a popular figure, yet there was a touch of remoteness about hire which marked him out from others, though it did not separate him from them. He was remem tiered as an expert whist player and was known for his interests in cycling and long walks.

The hidden years
After the sudden and unexpected death of his father, Sir Edward Sullivan, Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1885, John seems to have retreated from his familiar world in Dublin’s fashionable society and went to London to continue his legal studies. Little is known of this period of his life and so we could refer to this time as ‘the hidden years’. But while WE may know very little about his spiritual journey, we do know that during a visit to Greece he visited the monastery of Mount Athos and he remained in contact after he returned to England.

We also know about his regular visits to Glencar, Co. Kerry and how he used to eavesdrop on the catechism lesson of one of the young ladies of the house! This was at a time shortly before he made his decision to become a Catholic. On 21 December 1896 he was received into the Church at Farm Street, the famous Jesuit church in London. We can only imagine the reaction of his mother, Lady Bessie Josephine Sullivan.

After becoming a Catholic there was a dramatic change in his lifestyle. He removed all material comforts from his room in Fitzwilliam Place. His ward-robe was changed drastically. From his reputation as one of ‘the best-dressed men around Dublin’, his clothes were of the simplest and plainest style.

He became a regular visitor to the Hospice for the Dying in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. From this time onwards he was to become known for his devotion to the sick, to the poor and to anyone in need. This was to be part of the driving force for the rest of his life. And, as they say, the rest is history.

The Jesuit years
In 1900 he decided to become a Jesuit. After some of the usual Jesuit studies in preparation for priesthood, he was ordained priest for the Society of Jesus on 28 July 1907. From this time onwards most of his priestly life was spent in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare – apart for a short few years when he was Rector of Rathfarnham Castle.

From the time of his arrival in Clongowes, he was always known as a friend to the poor and to anyone in need. His ministry radiated from the People’s Church and he was usually to be found there, praying, unless he was away on some errand of mercy. His confessional became a haven of peace for many. Those who were ill sent for Father John. People had great faith in his prayers. He could bring comfort and peace where others failed. Why?

An old lady who lived near Clongowes and who knew him well probably penetrated the secret: ‘Father Sullivan is very hard on himself’. Is this the healing that the Lord promised which comes through prayer and fasting?
In our own time many of his faithful friends visit his tomb in Gardiner Street church in Dublin. His crucifix is in constant demand for the blessing of the sick. There are many accounts of healing and favours received through his intercession.

Through intercession to this Servant of God we see the healing power of God at work in our lives. This is all part of the Good News announced by Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Sacred Heart: ‘He laid his hand on them and he healed them’. The Master sent his disciples into the world in his name to continue his healing work on earth. Father John Sullivan was such a disciple.

Let us pray together that the example and prayer of Father John will continue to inspire many to draw near to the Lord and that, in our different needs, we also will feel the healing hand of the Master upon us.

Father John Sullivan’s Cause for Beatification continues to make steady progress with the Holy See. Let us also pray that Father John’s evident holiness will be solemnly ratified by the Holy Father so that the Church Universal may acknowledge this Servant of God as a Saint.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.