My family witnessed making of a saint

John Daly

An article from the Irish Daily Mail, 10 May 2016 edition, marking the announcement that Father John Sullivan is to be beatified.

When the news emerged last week that Pope Francis had approved the beatification of Father John Sullivan, I knew my mother was smiling from somewhere on high. “That man will be made a saint one day,” she declared repeatedly throughout my youth. “And then we’ll all be sure of a place in Heaven.” The Jesuit priest who died in 1933 was always held in a very special esteem amongst us Daly’s, and last week’s news from the Vatican confirmed those hopes that he would one day achieve that ultimate of Catholic honours – sainthood. It has long been a legend of the family that his connection to our home at Glencar in County Kerry played a small, but pivotal, part in becoming the exceptional individual he turned out to be. Venerated for his charity work with the poor and infirm in the early 20th century, Father John, as he was known throughout his life, was also associated with a number of miraculous cures – key elements to attaining this highest religious honour. Supporters of the former Clongowes Wood College teacher, where he spent most of his life, have campaigned for his sainthood since the 1940s – a long journey begun by him being declared a Servant of God in 1960, and subsequently deemed Venerable in 2014.

Right from the start, however, John Sullivan’s path to Cannonical veneration was unusual. Born a Protestant in 1861 into a privileged Dublin world of wealth and elegance, his father Edward was a distinguished barrister who would later become Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Living in upper class splendour at Fitzwilliam Place, John wrote of “a blessed childhood in a happy, loving home’. Following his older brothers to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen – an institution he later remembered as “coming to bathed in tears, but leaving years later with more plentiful tears” – he eventually won a scholarship to Trinity College. Studying the Classics, at which he would win the college Gold Medal, John Sullivan was dubbed ‘the best dressed man in Dublin’ at one point, and an expert whist player who cycled about the city to dinner parties and grand occasions. To the upper class mothers of Georgian Dublin, he was the ultimate catch – popular, highly-respected, well off, and a ‘major trophy in the matrimonial market,’ according to one dowager. Yet, in spite of this seemingly perfect life rolling out in front of John Sullivan, colleagues from his time at Trinity also recalled a remoteness about him, an air of self containment that hovered above the social whirl of the times.

During those early years between Trinity and pursuing a legal career at London’s King’s Inns, John Sullivan was a frequent visitor to Glencar Hotel – my old family home. A keen fisherman and walker of ancient mountain and bogland trails, he found perfect solace in this unspoiled corner of ‘the Kingdom’, nestling in the lee of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Carrauntoohil. Dating from 1670 when it was built as a hunting lodge for Sir William Petty, the Earl of Lansdowne, the small country hotel was a complete contrast to the bustle of the city – and a place that would play a significant part in changing the life of the future Father John. During one of his visits in 1893, he returned early from fishing the River Caragh one day, and sat on a windowsill to enjoy the afternoon sun. As the window was open a fraction, his attention was caught by my grandmother, Mary Charlotte, being taught her catechism by a governess in the nursery. Sitting quietly transfixed, the mild-mannered John waited until the lesson was over and asked if he might borrow the book – Butler’s Catechism. Next day he returned, this time asking if he might sit in on the lesson, and engaged Granny Daly at length about Mass and confession. He borrowed Butler’s Lives of the Saints for evening reading on that occasion. And so it continued for the rest of the week, with the elegant young man from Dublin becoming ever more engaged in discussions of religion and all things of the faith. A few years later when the news came to Glencar that our former visitor had joined the Jesuits, my Granny reportedly jumped from her chair declaring “I knew he would!” Thereafter the nursery was known as ‘Father John’s room’, and the very same place where yours truly learned his ABC’s.

In December 1896, John Sullivan was received into Farm Street, the famous Jesuit church in London. The granddaughter of his brother, Sir William Sullivan, remembered the family being ‘shellshocked’ at the news, and a college friend exclaimed “he always seemed to be a typical Protestant of the best sort.” On the other hand, John’s mother, Lady Bessie Sullivan, herself born to a Catholic family in Mallow, was overjoyed. The transformation in the man once deemed best dressed in Dublin was remarkable – out went the wardrobe of expert tailoring, in came rudimentary clothing of the plainest style. The social whirl was replaced by regular visits to hospices and old folks homes. He was ordained into the Society of Jesus on July 28th, 1907, and from that time onwards spent most of his priestly life at Clongowes Wood College in Kildare. Ironically, it was the same boarding school I went to in the 1970s – my mother wouldn’t countenance me being sent anywhere but the institution where her revered Father John had taught. Fr John Fitzgerald, a Jesuit who was a student at Clongowes in the 1920s remembered his namesake as “a true man of God – his appearance so well captured in Sean Keating’s famous drawing, the sunken cheeks, the fine crop of brown hair, the bowed head, the penetrating eyes. Meeting you on a stone corridor on a bleak cold winter’s evening he would clap those hands and say “Cheer up, cheer up, cheer up”. Father John’s innate good nature made him a favourite of his students, who frequently delighted to annoy him by their rowdiness. “This drew the condemnation we intended: ‘Audacious fellow’ he would say, ‘pugnacious fellow!’ This was his standard retort.” After his funeral in 1933, the man who would himself be inspired to later become a Jesuit, said: “We had been privileged to know Fr John for three years, not everyone is so blessed.”

Among the miraculous cures attributed to Father John is that Micheal Collins, three year old nephew of the famous Michael Collins, who suffered severe infantile paralysis. Thinking nothing of the 70-mile trip, the 66-year old Father John cycled to Dublin’s Mater Hospital, and prayed over the boy for four hours. By dawn next day the condition deemed incurable by doctors had lifted, leaving the boy to make a full recovery and became a champion school swimmer a year later. This incident was but the tip of the iceberg in Father John’s dedication to the sick and infirm – a constant presence cycling the lanes of Kildare through all weathers wherever he was asked for. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin summed up the essence of the man earlier this year: “His was a generosity which sought no recognition. The roots of his goodness were marked by a total lack of self-seeking – indeed most of his good works were done in secret unknown to others.” Last weekend, as I walked some of the same old roads around Glencar that Father John had trekked all those years ago, I paused to think of my mother and that smile of her that said all was right with the world.