At the end of term three last year, I accompanied five of our then year 10 boys to our sister school (or is it ‘mother school’?) in Ireland, Clongowes Wood. We have an ongoing relationship with Clongowes with gap student exchanges as well. But more importantly, our founder, Fr Joseph Dalton SJ, was there as both boy and Jesuit.
When I was at the college, on afternoon strolls in their 600 acres I would often walk through the cemetery where, over almost two centuries, boys and staff who died there were buried. One grave I was keen to visit was that of Fr John Sullivan, who died in 1933, aged 71.
In fact, that grave is now empty. Just as Fr Dalton’s remains were relocated from Gore Hill cemetery to our school Chapel, so Fr Sullivan’s remains, because of the enormous number of visitors and pilgrims coming to the site (and souveniring the soil!), were exhumed in 1960 and lodged in the main Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier in Dublin.
Why was this? The answer is a story which reached a significant climax earlier this month in Dublin, when John Sullivan was declared a Blessed — the last step on the road to canonisation as a Saint.
John Sullivan was born into a very comfortable and influential background in 1861. His father was baronet Sir Edward Sullivan, a member of Parliament, later Solicitor General, then Lord Chancellor of Ireland. John was raised as a Protestant. He attended Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland, the most eminent Protestant school of the day.
At Trinity College Dublin for University studies, he won the Gold Medal in Classics. He was then called to the Bar in Lincoln’s Inn, London. In Britain, Sullivan made numerous friends, among them politicians from all the main parties.
That he was a man of ability, experience and judgment was indicated by his appointment in 1895 by the Conservative government to a commission to investigate the widespread massacre of Armenians in Ardana, Asia Minor, an event which received much publicity and generated strong feelings at the time.
Back in Ireland, Sullivan pursued a very successful career in law. John Sullivan was a very rich, very influential figure in Dublin, full of charm and grace — known in society as ‘the best dressed man around Dublin’. On his father’s sudden death, he had inherited great wealth and during this period travelled Europe extensively, especially spending time taking walking tours of Macedonia, Greece, and Asia Minor.
To the great surprise of his family and Dublin society, John Sullivan was received into the Catholic Church by the Jesuits in London in 1896, aged 35. His brother’s granddaughter later said the family was ‘shell-shocked’ at the news.
His decision to become Catholic led to an enormous change in lifestyle. On returning to Dublin, he stripped his room of anything that appeared luxurious, even the carpet on the floor. The fashionable clothes disappeared in favour of the most ordinary garb. He even removed his stylish moustache.
Sullivan became a frequent visitor to the Hospice of the Dying in Dublin where he brought comfort and companionship in addition to food, drink and clothing to those ill people. He read to them from religious books.
A further surprise awaited the Sullivan family when, four years later, they learned he was joining the Jesuits. He was ordained in 1907 and was to spend the greater part of his life thereafter at Clongowes Wood. By all accounts, he was not a great teacher, but the boys loved him. He was known as ‘a sport’ — that is, always seeing the better side of the boys, even the rascals. Some also told their parents they were being ‘taught by a saint’.
It was at Clongowes that his life of prayer and penance began to be noticed. He ate the plainest of food. Staff who looked after rooms said his bed was untouched and he slept on the floor. He was always seen in the chapel praying until late and rising early to do so again. At times, he hardly seemed to notice the world around him. But if he was hard on himself, he was never so on others.
But there was another dimension. Apart from his work as teacher, spiritual father, and retreat director, Father Sullivan was a familiar figure among the sick and the needy for miles around Clongowes. He visited them on foot or on an old battered bicycle. On these home visits to the poor, he brought them small luxuries, including a bit of tobacco, tea and sugar, as well as oranges and apples.
In time, there was an ever-widening circle of others, whom he visited in hospitals and consoled by letter, or who came to him from almost every county in Ireland to ask the intercession of his prayers in their illness and misfortunes. He constantly heard confessions in the church attached to the college. People came by bicycle, by horse or donkey and cart, or arranged a lift in a car for a sick person. In later years, it was a common sight to see several vehicles waiting outside the door, in which invalids had been brought to get his blessing.
Neither weather nor distances seemed to be major obstacles. Once Fr Sullivan walked 14 miles there and 14 miles back to pray with and to bless a sick person. His bicycle brought him on longer journeys, including visits to Dublin and back (the equivalent of Lane Cove to Blacktown). In his threadbare clothes and his aged and patched boots, he was a familiar sight on the roads around Clongowes and further afield.
Fr Sullivan’s prayers restored people to health, cured their pain, relieved them of psychological problems. His compassion and reverence for the person were often observed. He would draw very close to them, when even medical staff found their condition near nauseating. There have been hundreds of testimonies attributing various healings to him during his life and a number of those are seen as miracles, and have been verified as such, which has led to his beatification.
Fr Sullivan’s health began to decline as the 1920s drew to a close. In early 1933, he was rushed to hospital in Dublin with intestinal problems and had surgery. There he was visited by Fr George Roche, his Rector at Clongowes, who asked him if he had any message for the boys. He whispered his last words, ‘God bless and protect them’, then slipped into unconsciousness and died that night.
The lives of saints are offered to us as models. But sometimes these lives seem so lofty and mystical that we might feel they are beyond our experience. Sometimes I see John Sullivan in that light — in spite of the appealing compassion and care for others, and his affection for his students, he is nevertheless so detached, so ascetical and prayerful, so mystical. But he is a model for us. I think it is just as Browning once remarked, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’
Blessed John Sullivan … pray for us.
Fr Ross Jones SJ is Rector of Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview. This article originally appeared in the college newsletter.