by ehistoryadmin on March 1, 2016


A friend in the Vatican: a Clongowes Priest and the Pope.

Liam Kenny

Is the Pope a Catholic? The answer to this rhetorical question is of course, “yes”, he is a Catholic. But more importantly for present purposes he is a Jesuit. And that coincidence may have been behind the announcement that Pope Francis has accelerated the case being made for the canonization of a fellow Jesuit of a previous generation, Fr John Sullivan of Clongowes. The files on Fr Sullivan’s cause had been with the papal offices since 1960. They had been brought from Dublin to Rome in that year by the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican, Dr Sean O’h-Eadain, an interesting man in his own right being a member of a brilliant family from the main street of Naas.

The voluminous stories of care, cures and consolation, which followed Fr Sullivan’s visits to households in mid-Kildare in the 1920s made a strong case for his recognition by the global church. However the progress on such matters in the Vatican labyrinth can be glacial and, in Fr Sullivan’s case, had been in suspended animation for the past fifty years until a fellow Jesuit in the person of Pope Francis was in a position to make things happen. The Pope has declared that Fr Sullivan is a “Venerable” – a person deemed by the Vatican to be worthy of special devotion by the faithful.

The news has been welcomed in Clane, Rathcoffey, and Naas and further afield who have inherited the belief in Fr Sullivan’s holiness told to them by parents and grand-parents who had reason to be grateful for the saintly Jesuit’s intercession. Each summer many hundreds attend the annual Mass in Clongowes in memory of his ministry of healing. So numerous is the attendance that both chapels at the college are full to overflowing – the Boys Chapel and the smaller People’s Chapel. And it is in the latter that Fr Sullivan was most often to be found. While his Jesuit confreres concentrated their efforts on their immediate roles within the College, Fr Sullivan identified with the people in its hinterland. He often forayed beyond its walls to visit the homes of the weak, poor and dying in the wider Clane area. He constantly heard confession in the public chapel and received in its porch those who had come to see him. It was common to see lines of people including those invalided queuing to receive his blessing.

This theme of Fr Sullivan’s many acts of charity was highlighted by a Jesuit colleague Fr Fergal McGrath – who had known John Sullivan in his lifetime – and who published a biography in 1945. He remarked that Fr Sullivan’s dedication to the apostolate of the poor and the suffering never flagged during his thirty years 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 Michael Collins, the three-year old nephew of the celebrated patriot Michael Collins, and son of Mr and Mrs Sean Collins who in 1928 were living in Celbridge. On an October night young Michael woke the household crying in distress. Dr Charles O’Connor of Celbridge was sent for and he diagnosed a condition of severe infantile paralysis. This diagnosis was confirmed the following day by an eminent 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 Sulllivan’s healing powers suggested to the Collins parents that they might make contact with Clongowes and ask for his intercession. Mrs Collins herself drove to Clongowes to see Fr Sullivan. He promised to say Mass for the child. In fact he did much more that. Later in the week he cycled the twenty miles to Dublin (Fr Sullivan was sixty-six at the time) and said a prayer at the toddler’s bed-side. Within hours of Fr Sullivan’s departure the youngster – who had been deemed incurable by the consultants – showed a marked improvement and the war sister noted his limbs beginning to move with normality. He went on to a full recovery and became a champion schools’ swimmer.

Another cure attributed to Fr Sullivan was that of Miss Kitty Garry who was ten and lived at Kingsfurze on the back road between Naas and Johnstown. A child of ten she took weak in school one day and was diagnosed as having T.B., a common and deadly affliction in the Ireland of the 1920s. Her parents brought her over to Fr Sullivan in Clongowes. He blessed her, clapped his hands, and said “Don’t worry; she’ll grow up to be a strong girl.” A month later her family doctor confirmed that all traces of TB had disappeared from her system.

That John Sullivan was a saint in the making is an impression reinforced by the many other stories of healing brought on by his prayers: there was the case of a Mrs Fullam of Naas, wife of Laurence Fullam, Assistant County Surveyor who in February 1927 was dying of double pneumonia; Fr Sullivan was summoned to her sick bed and within three weeks she was fit enough to travel to Dublin on St Patrick’s Day.

While his many works of healing and charity were tangible contributions to the care of his fellow man, John Sullivan’s story has also a noted ecumenical dimension. He was a child of a mixed marriage. His farther, one of the most eminent barristers of his days, was protestant; his mother a Catholic. John Sullivan was brought up in the Church of Ireland tradition and was educated at Portora Royal School, near Enniskillen. He lived a privileged life in his younger years when from his parents’ home in Fitzwilliam place he had access to the lifestyle of a young well-connected man about town. However despite his outward appearance of a son of privilege it appears that inwardly he was struggling with question of faith and religion. He was working in legal practice in London in 1896 where – without telling any of his family – he was received into the Catholic Church at the Jesuit house in the city. Some observers put his discreet conversion down to the influence of his Catholic mother. Whatever the influences behind his transition from protestant to catholic his legacy has won respect across the spectrum. Dr Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, spoke earlier this year of John Sullivan’s place as an ecumenical figure.

John Sullivan is now a “Venerable” which means he is two steps away from full canonization. Judging on the progress of his cause to date it could be another century before he is elevated to sainthood. But then, as we have seen already, with a Jesuit in the Vatican, anything could happen. Leinster Leader 18 November 2014, Looking Back Series no: 408.

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