Fr John’s life ‘is a remarkable story of Good News’

The date for the beatification ceremony of Blessed John Sullivan elect has been confirmed for Saturday May 13 in Gardiner Street Church at 11am. This is the first ever beatification ceremony to take place in Ireland. John’s life is a remarkable story of Good News. 

John Sullivan was baptised in the local Church of Ireland parish, St. George’s, Temple Street, on July 15 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.

In 1872, the young John was sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. In later years – and shortly before his death – 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. 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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fr Paddy Byrne

Published by, 29 April 2017.