Saintly Jesuit still remembered in Kildare

Liam Kenny

An article from the Leinster Leader in August 2007 marking the centenary of Fr Sullivan’s ordination to the priesthood.

August 2007

Memories of saintly Jesuit still recalled in north Kildare

THIS year marks the centenary of the ordination to the priesthood of a Clongowes based priest who holds a great place in the affections of many in the Clane and north Kildare environs. Fr. John Sullivan (1861-1933), was ordained on the 28 July 1907 as a member of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. Most of his priestly life was spent in Clongowes Wood College where as well as his collegial duties he also spent time visiting the homes of the people in localities such as Mainham, Clane, Rathcoffey, and Staplestown. On some occasions his habit was simply to call to the house of a lonely or ill person and console them with his reservoirs of prayerfulness and humanity; on other occasions he brought some little necessity while in a number of remarkable cases his presence and prayer seems to have brought an exceptional transformation in terms of relieving the pain of those in the advanced stages of illness.

A fellow Jesuit of a somewhat later generation, Fr. Fergal McGrath, SJ, published a book on Fr. Sullivan’s life in 1945 and summed up his service to the people of the Clane area as follows: ‘ The apostolate of the poor, the suffering, and the afflicted never flagged during thirty years. Father Sullivan was a great walker, and his figure was a familiar one on the roads around Clongowes.’

Among the cures attributed to Fr. Sullivan in the McGrath book is an account of the cure of a Micheal Collins, three year old nephew of the famous Michael Collins, and son of Mr. and Mrs. Sean Collins who were then living in Celbridge. One night in October 1928 young Michael woke the household shouting in distress. Dr. Charles O’Connor of Celbridge was sent for and diagnosed a condition of severe infantile paralysis. This diagnosis was confirmed the following day by an eminent Dublin surgeon who advised sending the boy to the Mater Hospital but held out little hope for his recovery. While this was happening some Celbridge locals who knew of Fr. Sullivan’s repute for cures suggested to the Collins parents that they might make contact with Clongowes and ask for his prayers. Mrs. Collins herself drove to Clongowes to see the holy Jesuit. He promised to say Mass for the child. In fact he did much more than that. Later in the week he cycled all the way to Dublin (Fr. Sullivan was sixty-six at the time) and said a prayer at young Micheal’s bedside. Within hours of Fr. Sullivan’s departure the young lad – who had been deemed incurable by the consultants – showed an improvement and the ward sister noted his limbs beginning to move with normality. He went on to make a full recovery and indeed became a champion school swimmer.

Another cure attributed to Fr. Sullivan was that of Miss Kitty Garry who was ten and lived at Kingsfurze near Naas. She took weak in school one day and was diagnosed as having TB, a common and deadly affliction in the Ireland of the 1920s. Her parents brought her over to Fr. Sullivan who blessed her and, according to Fr. McGrath’s account clapped his hands and said ‘Don’t worry; she’ll grow up a great big strong girl.’ A month later her family doctor confirmed recovery from the TB diagnosis.

Of course much of Fr. Sullivan’s work in the district around Clongowes was centred on more low key works of prayer and charity. His memory is still treasured by the people of the Clane and Rathcoffey areas and a fine modern memorial to him can be viewed in the cemetery impeccably maintained by the Mainham Graveyard Association. The process for his eventual recognition by the Vatican is underway. Although beatification is a tortuous process his Jesuit successors can take heart from the example of Fr. Charles, the Passionist priest of Mount Argus, Dublin, who was canonised by Pope Benedict earlier this summer.

An article by Liam Kenny in the Leinster Leader of 2nd August 2007 from his regular feature, ‘Nothing New Under the Sun,’ on the Jesuit priest, Fr. John Sullivan of Clongowes Wood. Our thanks to Liam.