Feature

A servant of the poor and sick
Ahead of his historic beatification ceremony, Mags Gargan looks at the life of Fr John Sullivan

CofI Archbishop Michael Jackson and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the tomb of Fr John Sullivan in Gardiner Street Church in Dublin.

Ireland will host its first ever beatification ceremony this weekend, when Fr John Sullivan SJ will be named Blessed on May 13. (Up until the papacy of Benedict XVI beatifications tended to take place in Rome and the Pope presided over them.) Pope Francis will be represented by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, at the ceremony in St Francis Xavier Church, on Dublin’s Gardiner Street, where Fr John is buried.

As a Catholic convert, Fr Sullivan is a hero for both the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland, and in another first, the request for beatification at the ceremony will be made by the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin together, reflecting the fact that Fr John was an Anglican for the first half of his life and Catholic for the second.

John Sullivan was born in Dublin on May 8, 1861. He was the youngest of five children. John’s father, the future Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Sir Edward Sullivan, was a Protestant. His mother, Lady Bessie Josephine Sullivan, was a Catholic. It was the custom at the time that in a mixed marriage sons would follow the faith of their father and daughters would follow their mother’s faith. So John was brought up in the Protestant tradition and lived a life of elegance and luxury.

Education

From the age of 11 John was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. A star pupil there, he went on to study classics and then law at Trinity College. It was at this time that his father died suddenly. The shock had a devastating effect on John.

He left Ireland and continued his legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn in London where he was called to the Bar in 1888. 

At this time, due to his inheritance, he was very comfortable in financial terms, noted for his fashionable dress and handsome appearance. He travelled extensively around Europe and was a keen cycling enthusiast. He stayed at the Orthodox monastery of Mount Athos in Greece and was friendly with the monks.

His mother’s strength of faith had a huge influence on John and in December 1896, at the age of 35, he was received into the Catholic Church. He carried on with his career in law but abandoned all the trappings of his life of luxury and devoted a lot of his time to the sick and the poor. 

His mother’s death in 1898 focused his mind and in 1900 he decided to enter the Jesuit order. Most of his priestly life was spent in Clongowes Wood College, in Co. Kildare, except for five years as rector of Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin. 

Fr John’s life was characterised by acts of self-denial and a total commitment to the service of God and others. Every available moment was spent in prayer at the chapel in Clongowes. He was never without his crucifix, which was his mother’s, and he blessed countless people with it. Today the cross is brought on request to the sick in hospitals and on house visits by a dedicated priest, Fr Paul Farquharson SJ.

Fr Sullivan had a reputation for sanctity at Clongowes and was a kind and gentle father figure to the schoolboys. His reputation spread among the local people and others began to travel from far afield to ask for his spiritual guidance. He had a great devotion to the sick and miracle cures happened to many with whom he prayed.

“He was a man who was a servant of the poor, the sick and of anyone in any need,” says Fr Conor Harper SJ, vice postulator of Fr Sullivan’s cause. “He was always available and clearly in eyes of the people a very holy man. They often came to him not so much for cures but for comfort. Peace seems to come after the blessing and that still happens. Some people who want to be blessed with the cross – many are hoping to get better – but some are just praying for comfort and peace, and it happens often.” 

Continual prayer

In 1933 Fr Sullivan became gravely ill and was admitted to St Vincent’s Nursing Home in Leeson Street, Dublin. He spent the last two days of his life in continual prayer. He was buried in the grounds of Clongowes and his grave became a place of pilgrimage after his death.

“There was a huge devotion all around Co. Kildare, radiating from Clongowes Wood College, over the years from the time he was there to the time of his death and there is still huge devotion around the area,” Fr Harper says.

In 1960 Fr John’s remains were exhumed as part of the process of his cause for canonisation and transferred to the Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier in Dublin. Pope John XXIII declared Fr Sullivan a Servant of God in 1960 and he was named ‘Venerable’ in 2014 by Pope Benedict XVI. In April 2016 Pope Francis approved a decree that authenticated a miracle attributed to Fr Sullivan, thereby approving his beatification.

The miracle that has led to Fr John’s beatification saw a Dubliner, Delia Farnham, make an incredible recovery from a neck tumour in 1954. Among the other healings attributed to him is of Michael Collins, nephew of General Michael Collins, founder of the Irish Free State, who was paralysed as a young boy but suddenly walked in 1928 after Fr Sullivan touched his leg and prayed over him.

Another well attested healing was in December 1932, only two months before Fr Sullivan’s death. It was that of a young married woman who was suffering from terrible vomiting. She was unable to retain any food and had become fatally thin. Fr Sullivan sprinkled her with holy water and said some prayers and over the next few days she made a full recovery.

On the third Saturday of every month at 1pm, a Mass is celebrated for Fr John in Gardiner Street, “which is normally a full church” according to the parish priest, Fr Gerry Clarke SJ. There is also an annual Mass at end of February, attended in recent years by Archbishop Michael Jackson, “which is very full and people come from all over Ireland”. Fr John’s Anglican relatives, Sheila and Peter Lloyd, also normally travel from England for the event.

Fr Clarke said the number of petitions to Fr Sullivan has increased since the announcement of his beatification and there is a “great sense of hope and anticipation” for the upcoming ceremony.

“Devotees attribute healings to Fr John and his cross. Soil from his tomb has even been brought abroad. Fr John was known for his simplicity, his humility and his deep prayer. He was just known always as a very holy man and people put great faith in his intercession,” Fr Clarke says.

Each year on Fr John’s birthday in May, a Mass is celebrated in the people’s church in Clongowes. Celebrating the Mass last year, Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin, Denis Nulty said he has often heard stories of Fr Sullivan’s holiness when he is travelling in the diocese. 

“One person told me her family were personally acquainted with a woman from near the college whose incurable illness was healed through the intervention of Fr John Sullivan; another whose grandmother came from Ballinagappa, Clane knew that her arthritic grandmother’s mother was attended to by Fr John, and the family continued to visit his grave, while it was here in Clongowes.”

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who will lead the beatification ceremony, has described Fr John as a “model of holiness”. “The saints are those who live holiness to such a degree that they truly go beyond human narrowness and live a life of love that embraces everyone. That is the virtuous life that has been recognised by the Church in a special way in the life of John Sullivan,” he said.

Archbishop Jackson, another former pupil of Portora, has spoken with a marked warmth of John Sullivan and of how the two traditions that he represented look to him as a model of personal holiness and of humble, priestly service. 

The archbishop said the faith of Fr John was “the product of two traditions and always remained so and was enriched by that fact”, explaining that “there is an important ecumenical transformation which comes through entering into the prayer traditions and the piety of other traditions”. He said that “holiness knows no denominational boundaries” and explained how in our ecumenical reflection we don’t pay enough attention to the fact that saints “can be a bridge between what is deepest and common in all our traditions”.

Striking feature

Fr Harper said a “very striking feature” in recent times is the interest in the cause from the “Church of Ireland and especially from his old school, Portora in Enniskillen”. “The former headmaster Neill Morton gave a very good statement when the beatification was declared, he said ‘we in Portora are very proud of being the only Protestant school in the history of Ireland that can boast of having a Catholic saint’.”

Fr Clarke describes Saturday’s beatification ceremony as “the end of a long process of waiting” and the last few weeks have seen a hive of activity in the Irish Jesuit community.

“We have a committee which has been meeting weekly for the last month and a half and we have mobilised the resources of the Jesuits in the city centre and Dublin diocese has been very helpful,” he says.

Fr Clarke says it’s “an honour that this is taking place at the Jesuit parish in Gardiner Street” and the community there is “really excited as we prepare for this momentous day for the beatification of a Jesuit priest born in Eccles St and known for his care for the sick and the poor”.

While this is the first beatification in Ireland, Fr John is not the first Irish Jesuit to be beatified according to Fr Clarke. “A number of years ago [1992] we had Blessed Dominic Collins, who was a Jesuit brother born in Youghal in Co. Cork and he was martyred in 1602. His beatification ceremony was in the Vatican and so a small delegation went to Rome. 

“This time the ceremony is in Dublin and unfortunately we have had to organise it by ticket in the church to accommodate the large numbers. But we have two large marquees in the garden right next door with screens and sound, and the ceremony will be live streamed there and in the O’Reilly Theatre in Belvedere College. It will also be available to view on the Jesuit website www.jesuit.ie/beatification at 11am.”

One of Fr John’s relatives will take part in the readings during the ceremony and music will be provided by Clongowes Wood College. Also, world-renowned soprano Celine Byrne, a native of Kildare, will sing the Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. During the Mass, a large portrait of Fr John will be unveiled and a relic of his hair, which was kept by his barber, Charlie Barrett, will be brought to the altar. After the ceremony there will be a time for quiet reflection, during which attendees may receive a blessing from the Fr John Sullivan cross.

A Mass of Thanksgiving for the beatification of Fr John will take place in Clongowes Wood College on Saturday, May 20 at 7pm.

Beatification, which confers the title ‘Blessed’, means that a man or woman is considered to be truly holy and worthy of veneration at a local level. The next stage after beatification is canonisation – sainthood – which is a recognition of this holiness by the universal Church.

In the meantime, Fr Harper says “devotions will continue”. “The next step would be canonisation, and for that to happen from the moment of beatification we are waiting for another miracle and if that is what the Almighty wants, we will get our miracle, and if it is not we carry on. 

“Fr John Sullivan is still a great bond, a catalyst between the people and the Almighty,” he says.