Portora priest put pebbles in his only pair of shoes to make them fit better

Father John Sullivan
Father John Sullivan

Early one summer morning in 1925 a kitchen-maid from a Cork convent slipped on her wellington boots, as was her daily routine, and plodded off with a wicker basket to the convent’s vegetable garden for greens for lunch.

The kitchen staff were surprised when she returned almost immediately.

Her basket was empty.

“The ‘holy Father’ is prostrate on the ground,” she exclaimed. “His arms a re stretched out and he’s saying his prayers.”

The maid didn’t want to interrupt Father John Sullivan during his “wonderful devotion that he tried hard to instil into the hearts of others.”

The ‘holy Father’ is now Blessed John Sullivan following his beatification ceremony in Dublin on Saturday 13 May - the first ever beatification ceremony for a saint in Ireland.

The next step, canonisation, will make him our first ‘home-grown’, ‘fully fledged’ Saint, made even more extraordinary because he was originally a Protestant who went to the then 100% Protestant Portora Royal School.

If I’d the tiniest fraction of John Sullivan’s remarkable faith and devotion, I’d have my arms outstretched towards the people of Manchester, praying for and with them during their time of terrible tragedy.

John did infinitely more than that…every moment of every day.

His daily tally of extended visits to the sick, bereaved and needy, even in his later years, was enormous.

In his biography, Father Fergal McGrath recounts the aging priest tending to terminally ill tailor William Byrne “for three years, during the third year almost every day and towards the end twice a day.”

The tailor was one of many on Father Sullivan’s visiting schedule.

McGrath recounts the last two days Sullivan’s life “in continual prayer.”

He passed away on 19 February 1933 in Dublin’s old St. Vincent’s Nursing Home in Leeson Street, a short distance from his childhood home.

One of the nuns who nursed him recalled “I think that what most struck me and those who were privileged to nurse Father John Sullivan during his last illness was his perfect conformity to God’s will and his marvellous patience.”

In these days of darkness over Manchester, just a very few of Blessed John Sullivan’s more memorable words reveal his truly extraordinary life, and may offer some help and comfort as the tragedy unfolds.

“When unexpected humiliation comes to me, I should go to Our Lord…and tell Him all about it. Nothing is too big for Our Lord and nothing is too small.”

“Prayer is the greatest power on earth.”

“Consider your own faults and you will not have the courage to launch out against others. Charity is greater in God’s sight than poverty, chastity or even martyrdom.”

“We should be homesick for Heaven, since it is our home.”

“Have recourse to the Holy Spirit in all trials.”

“Jesus is in my soul to sanctify it, in my heart to possess it, and in my work to bless it.

“Every victory over self is a victory for God.”

“We shall acquire personal love of Our Lord by going against our self-love, rooting it out of our hearts.”

John Sullivan was born on 8 May 1861, brought up in the comfort and luxury of 41 Eccles Street, Dublin

His Protestant father Edward, who would later be Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was already showing the promise of a distinguished legal career.

His Catholic mother, Bessie Josephine Bailey, was from a landowning family of Passage West, Co. Cork.

In keeping with the customs of that time, John was brought up in the Protestant faith of his father.

On the centenary of his birth, Father Conor Harper recounted his life and influence.

When he was eleven John followed his elder brothers to Portora in Enniskillen.

He loved the school’s idyllic lake-land surroundings and wrote that he arrived homesick and “bathed in tears” but left shedding “more plentiful tears”!

Portora’s headmaster Dr William Steele profoundly influenced his spiritual development.

The beauties of Lough Erne and the old monastic settlement of Devenish Island always held a special fascination for him and had a deep influence on John’s spirituality.

He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, a Gold Medal in Classics and a reputation as a stunning whist player, keen cyclist and long-distance walker.

Last week this page outlined some of the milestones in his life - the sudden death of his father; his move to London to become a successful lawyer; his travels to Europe and his regular sojourns in the Orthodox monastery of Mount Athos in Greece where he became friendly with the monks.

In December 1896 at the age of 35, he was received into the Catholic Church and was ordained as a Jesuit priest on 28 July 1907.

He constantly walked with God, helping those in need, leaving behind considerable wealth, status and home-comforts.

Some friends’ and colleagues’ reminiscences compiled in Fergal McGrath’s biography end today’s short tribute to Blessed John Sullivan.

“He wore his clothes until they were patched beyond description, though always neat and clean.”

“He would do the most menial tasks, the heaviest work and the latest Mass, notwithstanding that he had a tiring week of daily duties.”

He tailored his only pair of shoes, stretched by over-use, “with a handful of small pebbles” which helped them “fit perfectly.”

His brother sent him a new pair.

“Father John wrapped them up in brown paper and went off to give them to someone needy.”

“He ate very little, no meat, a little rice pudding, without eggs for dinner. How he lived was a mystery.”

“He was a man dead to self.”