IT’S NOT every day an Irish priest is put on the path to becoming a saint, but last week Pope Francis declared the Jesuit priest Fr John Sullivan ‘venerable’. His story is a wonderful inspiration.
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. His mother, Elizabeth Bailey, came from a prominent land-owning family in Passage West, Co Cork.
The Sullivans were Protestant and the Baileys were Catholic. John was baptised in the local Church of Ireland parish, St George’s, Temple Street, on 15 July 1861. The family then moved to 32 Fitzwilliam Place, which was to be the Sullivan home for 40 years. And John was raised in the Protestant tradition of his father.
In 1872, the young John was sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen.
John loved Portora and, to this day, Portora 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.
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.
When his father died in April 1885, John had already begun studying law at Trinity with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps. The inheritance he received after his father’s death ensured that he was very comfortable. A friend of the Sullivan family, Fr Tom Finlay SJ, who lived in the Jesuit residence in Leeson Street, once referred to him as ‘the best-dressed man around Dublin’.
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. 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. But a further surprise awaited the Sullivan family. In 1900, John decided to become a Jesuit and entered the order’s novitiate in Tullabeg, Co Offaly.
After two years he took his vows as a Jesuit and was sent to St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst College, England to study philosophy. 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, where he was to spend the greater part of his life as a Jesuit.
Fr John’s reputation for holiness spread rapidly around Clongowes and the neighbourhood. 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.
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 so he could follow the call of the Lord, and in that he found riches of a different order.
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 in the power of his prayers.
And that confidence continues. He is still loved and remembered.