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Fr John Sullivan SJ: a loyal servant of God 1861-1933

30 November, 1999

John Sullivan was born into a prosperous Protestant background in Victorian Dublin. Though his mother was a Catholic, it was a surprise to the whole family that he converted to the Catholic faith and entered the Jesuit novitiate at the turn of the century. Conor Harper SJ tells his story.

John Sullivan was born on 8 May 1861 at 41 Eccles Street, in the heart of old Georgian Dublin. His father, Edward, the future Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was a successful barrister and was already showing signs of what was to be brilliant success in future life. His mother, Elizabeth Bailey, came from a prominent land-owning family in Passage West, Co. Cork.

The Sullivans were Protestant and the Bailey’s were Catholic. John was baptised in the local Church of Ireland parish, St. George’s, Temple Street, on 15 July 1861. It was soon after this that the family moved to 32 Fitzwilliam Place, which was to be the Sullivan home for forty years. John grew up in the gentle comforts and privileges of the fashionable Dublin society of the time, and was raised in the Protestant tradition of his father.

Portora and Trinity
In 1872, the young John was sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. In later years – and shortly before his death – he remembered his old school as a place where he went ‘bathed in tears’, but when the time came to leave some years later, he ‘wept more plentiful tears’.

John loved Portora and, to this day, Port ora remembers him. His name is inscribed there on the Royal Scholars Honours Board in Steele Hall. Another famous Dublin name that features on the board is that of Oscar Wilde. Both were to achieve fame in later life, but for very different reasons.

While at Portora, John often visited Devenish Island on Lough Erne. Was it here, in the silence and peace of that holy place, that he felt early stirrings of the spirit which would lead him to God?

After Portora, John went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied Classics. He was awarded the Gold Medal in Classics in 1885. This medal, among others, is carefully preserved in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare.

The death of his father, Sir Edward Sullivan, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, in April 1885 was a great shock to him. John dearly loved his father and had already started his studies in Law at Trinity with the intention of following in his father’s chosen career.

The inheritance he received after his father’s death ensured that he was very comfortable in financial terms. He was a very handsome man of charm and grace. He was an outdoor activities enthusiast. He loved cycling and long walks in hills and mountains at home and abroad. A friend of the Sullivan family, Fr. Tom Finlay, S.J., who lived in the Jesuit residence in Leeson Street, once referred to him as ‘the best dressed man around Dublin’.

Pivotal moment
Then something very strange happened. In December 1896, at the age of 35, after some years of soul searching, he decided to become a Catholic. He was received at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, London.

According to a granddaughter of his brother, Sir William Sullivan, who remembers her grandfather talking about the affair, the family was ‘shellshocked’ at the news. This is not to say that the family was in any way hostile to his decision. The astonishment was all the more acute in that John had never shown any special interest in religion which would have led him to making such a decision. He had always seemed to be a typical Protestant of the best sort!

The effect on Lady Sullivan, John’s mother, can only be imagined. All her life, she had been a devout Catholic. John’s decision must have been an answer to some of her prayers. She died two years later in 1898.

Society of Jesus
A further surprise awaited the Sullivan family. In 1900 John decided to become a Jesuit and entered the Jesuit novitiate in Tullabeg, Co. Offaly.

At the end of his two years novitiate, he took his vows as a Jesuit and then was sent to St. Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst College, England to study philosophy. Already his holiness was obvious to many who lived with him.

In 1904 he came to Milltown Park to study theology, and he was ordained a priest on 28 July 1907. He was then appointed to the staff in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, where he was to spend the greater part of his life as a Jesuit.

Solitude and holiness
The solitude and peace of the beautiful surroundings of Clongowes must have reminded him of Devenish Island and Lough Erne.

Fr. John’s reputation for holiness spread rapidly around Clongowes and the neighbourhood. Despite his brilliant mind and academic achievements, it was his holiness that was recognised. Many revered him as a saint. He prayed constantly: he walked with God continually, he listened to him, and he found him. That’s what people recognized in him.

Healing power
Many who were in need of healing flocked to him and asked his prayers – and strange things happened. The power of God seemed to work through him, and many were cured.

He was always available to the sick, the poor, and anyone in need. The call to serve God in serving those who suffered in any way was a driving force for the rest of his life. He was always caring for others, a source of comfort and peace to anyone in trouble. He brought many to God by pointing out the way that leads to the deepest and ultimate peace.

Whenever possible, he was at prayer. Every available moment was spent in the chapel. He walked with God, and lived every conscious moment in his presence. At times he hardly seemed to notice the world around him.

Life of severe penance
He was in constant union with his Maker, and cared little for the material things of life. One old lady who lived near Clongowes managed to penetrate the secret of his extraordinary holiness. Fr. Sullivan was very hard on himself, she pointed out, but he was never hard on others. He ate the plainest of food, and lived a life of severe penance. He left everything in order to follow the call of the Lord, and in that he found riches of a different order.

What a contrast with the rich young man of his earlier years!

On 19 February 1933, Fr. John Sullivan died in St. Vincent’s Nursing Home in Leeson Street, close to the Sullivan family home.

Since that time, he has been revered by many as a saint. During his lifetime, many flocked to him in times of trouble and anxiety, confident of the power of his prayers; and that confidence continues. He is still loved and remembered.

Cause for canonisation
In June 2002, the findings of the Supplementary Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Dublin for the Cause of the Canonisation of the Servant of God were forwarded to the Holy See. There is a constant demand for blessings with his vow crucifix, which is kept in St. Francis Xavier’s, Gardiner Street, where Fr. John’s earthly remains repose in the Sacred Heart Chapel. Many come to pray at his tomb.

There are many accounts of comfort and healing from those who have been blessed with Fr. John’s Cross. There is also a constant demand for relic cards.

In this month of his birthday, let us remember this man of God, and give thanks for the outstanding example of a life totally absorbed in his Maker and in the mission of bringing God’s healing and peace to a suffering world.

Prayer for the beatification of Fr.John Sullivan: 

O God, you honour those who honour you.
Make sacred the memory of your servant John Sullivan,
by granting through his intercession the petition we now make (name the petition)
and hastening the day when his name will be numbered among those of your saints.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2004), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.