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                         From the printed pages of Christ or Chaos, December, 2000; RevisedJune 8, 2011


Jackie Boy Remembered Yet Again

by Thomas A. Droleskey

[God places every person in our lives for a reason. Some exercise great influence over us long after they are dead. Some are ordinary, others are legendary.

[Well, among the many legendary figures I have known in five months, sixteen days shy of sixty years was the late Father John Joseph Sullivan, whom I met when I was studying for what I thought was the Catholic priesthood at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut during the 1983-1984 academic year. Father Sullivan impressed me immediately as a zealous pastor of souls who knew his Dogmatic Theology inside out, having been trained at "The Rock," as he called it, Saint Bernard's Seminary in Rochester, New York, in the late-1930s. Father Sullivan become a good friend and spiritual adviser after I left Holy Apostles following the completion of the sole year I was there.

[Father Sullivan did not understand the importance of restoring the Mass of Tradition, although he knew it very well, and the thought that the conciliar "popes" were not true Successors of Saint Peter never occurred to him. It took me long enough to recognize the the truth of the state of the Church Militant on earth in this time of apostasy and betrayal. Father Sullivan was also very sanguine about the American experience, very proud of the fact that his late father, Jerry J. Sullivan, was the first Catholic to have been a major executive at the Aetna Insurance Company and the first Catholic to be admitted to the West Hartford, Connecticut, Country Club. Nevertheless, Father Sullivan was a fierce fighter for the Faith and lover of souls. Thus, I thought it useful revise to revise this reflection, which was written originally in November of 2000 shortly after I had received word, most belatedly, that he had died on May 15 of that year.

[I should add a caveat here. Father Sullivan was a marvelous story-teller. However, as a full-blooded Irish-American, there was a bit of the blarney stone in him. Some of the stories below, I am sure, are completely true. Others might be a bit inflated. One or two of them are a little rough. Most, although not all, of the stories he told in class had a pastoral or doctrinal point to them. Father Ronald Bibeau, who has been working with the Society of Saint Pius X since 1989, had studied at Holy Apostles when I was there. He reminded me of a few other classic stories about Father Sullivan. I hope that this posting will help those who knew Father Sullivan to recall fondly this giant of a priest. And perhaps it will help others who have not read earlier version of this reflection to get to know him.

[With that caveat, therefore, I present to you, "Jackie Boy," from the printed pages of Christ or Chaos, December of 2000. The text of this current revision has been revised to reflect the passage of time. As it would take a book to relate all of the "Sully" stories, I did not have space in those printed pages for a lot of examples from Father Sullivan's life and teaching. A few more, therefore, are included here. I hope that you will find this reflection of some interest.]

Although I should have out of my beloved Shea Stadium long before I did on Tuesday, July 16, 2002, in protest of vulgar advertising that had started in Major League Baseball parks, I did grow up in the baseball soaked atmosphere of New York  City and environs in the 1950s, having followed the New York Mets from their inception in 1962. Yes, my knees have buckled in recent years concerning the boycott of baseball that I began nine years ago. I miss going to the games. It is important, at least as I see it, to show God that I do love Him more than the passing pleasures of this world. I want a season seat in Heaven, if you will, although I need a bit of reminding about that when my knees buckle and the desire to return becomes strong.

It is with this in mind that one must understand the "indignity" I suffered from being an eyewitness to the defeat of my beloved New York Mets by the incarnation of all evil in the world, the hated New York Yankees, in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series at William A. Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York. Indeed, I must admit to being a little downcast as I drove home that night, Thursday, October 26, 2000. Oh, yes, I know that baseball is only a game. It is, as I have come to realize, a waste of time, although I had rationalized my interest as a legitimate diversion, and I am not unsympathetic to the view of those who think that it had served that purpose for a long time prior to the coarsening of the culture. Although I fashioned myself as a fan who had grown being hardened to the outcome of games, I was a little distressed, humanly speaking, to see the Mets humiliated by the Yankees. Let's put it to you this way, my few and quite invisible readers, I was the only one of around 55,000 people that night who left Shea Stadium singing "Lift High the Cross" out loud as I walked back to my 2000 Saturn station wagon. 

The sting of my team’s defeat in the World Series, however, did not last too long. For it was upon my return home to Bethpage, Long Island, shortly after 1:00 am on Friday, October 27, 2000, that I learned truly tragic and shocking news.

The assortment of mail which awaited me from the Thursday afternoon delivery contained a letter which had been forwarded to me from the offices of The Wanderer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The letter was from a woman who had been until shortly before that time the receptionist at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where I had studied on an unsponsored basis during the 1983-84 academic year. Her letter assumed that I had heard the news of the death of the great Father John Joseph Sullivan on May 15, 2000. I had not.

I was thunderstruck by the news contained in the letter, I was shocked by the news of Father Sullivan’s death, and angry at myself for not having made the time to take a drive up to visit him at least one last time before he had died. Although I knew he was not in the best of health, Father Sullivan was such a bull of a man that I figured that he would live long enough to get up to West Hartford, Connecticut, from Long Island to see him again. And it was because I had learned that lesson that we made an effort to visit my Uncle Ed in Texas after we had left Connecticut when I was suffering from frostbite four months ago. We had to make the effort to convince him to return to the Faith. he refused. I wanted to see him one last time, and it was not having seen Father Sullivan that "one last time" that prompted me to put Texas on our agenda despite a paucity of funds. I am glad that we did so as my uncle died on March 20, 2011, twenty-three days after we had seen him. We made the effort. We tried. Everything else was entrusted to Our Lord through the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Yes, you, see, I was very saddened back in the early morning hours of October 27, 2000, when learning of Father Sullivan's death.

Father John Joseph Sullivan was featured in a series on the priesthood I submitted to The Wanderer in 1993. Words cannot properly capture the essence on this legendary figure. Suffice to say, however, that the phrase a “priest’s priest” comes close to doing so. Father Sullivan was a man in love with his priesthood and victimhood of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He spent himself tirelessly in the cause of the salvation of souls. No hour of the night was too inconvenient for him to make a sick call. No person who came to his rectory door to seek his pastoral advice was turned away. Friend and confessor of the powerful and the powerless alike, Father Sullivan knew he had the responsibility to be an alter Christus in everything he said and did. And he did so as a real man, perhaps the last of a nearly dead breed of priests of Irish-American extraction who were unafraid to use their fists as well as their brains to defend the integrity of the faith against all corners.

I met Father Sullivan in September of 1983 when I entered Holy Apostles. I had just relinquished my position at Nassau Community College on Long Island to provide a budgetary line for a colleague of mine who had a family to support. Taking the advice of several priests, I decided to study for the priesthood at Holy Apostles without the benefit of a diocesan bishop or of a religious community. I was able to maintain my ties to college teaching by teaching one course each semester that year on Saturdays in the graduate program of the Department of Government and Politics at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens. During the week, however, I studied and lived at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. Father Sullivan taught me in three courses (Ecclesiology, The Unity and Trinity of God, Eschatology and Mariology). Although possessed of one of the most brilliant minds I have ever seen, Father introduced himself in the Ecclesiology class in very matter-of-fact terms, stressing the love he had of the priesthood.

“I like to go to the racetracks to see four legged creatures with humans riding on top of them. And I like baseball, especially the New York Mets.” I said to myself, “I like this fellow.”

Father Sullivan was then 67 years of age and had been a priest for 42 years, having been ordained by Bishop Harry O’Brien of the then Diocese of Hartford on May 22, 1941. He found himself in a section of the Diocese of Hartford from which the Diocese of Norwich was created in 1953, and it was in that diocese that Father Sullivan served out the rest of his life as a priest. He had begun teaching dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in 1975 and would help to form and to inspire countless numbers of men for the next ten years. He pulled no punches at all about the necessity of a man aspiring to be a priest to exhibit manly qualities.

“Look,” he said on that first day in September of 1983. “You need to be men in Christ’s priesthood. This is no place for wimps or pansies or queers. If I even suspect you are a queer, I am going to boot your butt out of this seminary. Do you hear me? Do you understand me?” he exclaimed in no uncertain terms, turning his very large head with its mane of white hair from side to side sticking out his jaw for emphasis and blinking his eyes several times to make sure he had made his point. “You are called to be celibates if you persevere in this man’s priesthood. But if you tell me you don’t like girls, there’s something wrong with you. Yeah, if you tell me you see a Number 10 walking down the street and you’re not attracted to her, there are one of five possibilities: Number 1, you are dead. Number 2, you are blind. Number 3, you are made of cement. Number 4, you are a liar. Number 5, you’re a queer.”

Father Sullivan was so much more than tough talk, however. He was a man who knew his Catholic philosophy and theology completely. Trained at Saint Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York in the 1930's, Father Sullivan was conversant with every aspect of Catholic theology. He knew his Latin inside and out. His razor-sharp mind could pierce through sophistry in an instant. He could quote the Fathers and Doctors of the Church verbatim. He was also a student of history, especially the history of the War between the States, a war in which his relatives on his mother’s side, the McDonnell family, served with valor. But he could also wax for hours on end about Church history. There was no end to the depth and breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, he would even use his experience of working on a farm during the summers in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, to make profound theological points during class. And the stories he told from his days as a pastor and a prison chaplain and the chaplain to the narcotics officers of the Connecticut State Police were so hilarious that students would bring tape recorders to class to distill the stories from the class lectures. Those stories along would make fodder for a wonderful book (and movie) about this remarkable priest.

Father Sullivan was born to Jerry J. Sullivan and Julia McDonnell Sullivan on the Feast of the Seven Dolors of Our Lady, September 15, 1916. He was the first born in what would become a family of five children. He was the only boy of the five, and his father, who had become the first Catholic to reach senior management level at the Aetna Insurance Company in Hartford, Connecticut, wanted to groom him for a career in the insurance business. Rough and tumble Jackie Sullivan, however, liked playing football in high school. He liked dancing “cheek to cheek with the dollies” at the high school dances. Business was the farthest thing from his mind. His prowess as a football player earned him an athletic scholarship from the University of Notre Dame in 1933, the year he graduated from Bulkelely High School in Hartford, a place where he said he was proud to defend the Catholic faith with his fists among the Protestants who would taunt him.

It was as Notre Dame–Our Lady’s school–that young Jackie Sullivan decided to pursue the priesthood. He entered St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut, in 1934 after a one year stint at Notre Dame. Proving himself to be a rascal capable of breaking all of the disciplinary rules, Jackie Sullivan distinguished himself as a student without peer in his philosophy studies. He excelled also at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, which he called “the Marine Corps of the priesthood.” But it was a St. Bernard’s that the future Father Sullivan engaged in something of a guerilla warfare with the rector at the time, a Monsignor Goggin.

Seminarian John J. Sullivan didn’t like rules. He snuck a transistor radio into his room to listen to the World Series. He danced cheek to cheek with the dollies when he went home during the summers to dig ditches as a means of earning spending money for the incidental he would incur during his seminary years. He violated curfew, and plotted with other seminarians as to how to pull pranks on the rector. He shared a number of stories of those years when seminarians gathered around him at meal times, where he would hold court with anyone willing to listen to his treasure trove of stories.

One of the most notorious incidents involving seminarian Sullivan occurred on Shrove Tuesday in 1940. Students were not permitted to leave St. Bernard’s during the week without permission. Monsignor Goggin had ordered an especially strict curfew to be put in effect on Shrove Tuesday, principally to prevent Sullivan and his buddy, the future Father Aloysius Healy, from pulling off any hijinks. Jackie Sullivan saw this a a personal challenge to his ingenuity.

Thus, seminarians Sullivan and Healy found a way to leave St. Bernard’s after vespers on Shrove Tuesday. They made their way to the best steakhouse in Rochester, dining and drinking to their heart’s content. They got back to the seminary just before the stroke of Midnight on Ash Wednesday. Monsignor Goggin did not know about their escapade until he dined at the steak house himself on a Sunday during Lent. Although he pretended to be livid with the two (and meted out a stern punishment), Goggin had a great admiration for Sullivan’s tenacity, knowing that he would use it to good effect in the priesthood.

Much to Father Sullivan’s surprise, Bishop O’Brien informed him in the Summer of 1940 that Monsignor Goggin had recommended him to serve as the Prefect of Discipline at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut, in the 1940-41 academic year, the one in which seminarian Sullivan became the Reverend Mr. John J. Sullivan, a transitional deacon who was to serve his diaconal year in the very place where he had taken his philosophy studies. Who better to serve as a Prefect of Discipline than someone who knew how to break all of the rules? Who better to show genuine understanding of rebellious human nature than a man known to be something of a rebel in matters pertaining to discipline?

John J. Sullivan was ordained to the priesthood in St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford on May 22, 1941. As Father Sullivan was not yet 25 years of age at the time, Bishop Harry O’Brien had to get a dispensation from the Holy See for his ordination. Indeed, Bishop O’Brien wanted the newly ordained priest to go to Rome for further studies. O’Brien saw in Sullivan a man who was clearly episcopal material. But Father Sullivan wanted no part of that at all. He wanted to be a pastor of souls, accepting his first assignment at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Waterbury, Connecticut, with joy. But Father Sullivan was still the Jackie Sullivan who knew how to fight with fists even though he had the power to enflesh the God-Man under the appearance of bread and wine every time he celebrated the Sacrifice of the Mass. He remained the earthy son of first generation Irish-Americans.

Father Sullivan distinguished himself in Waterbury as a gifted orator. Some of the folks who were children when Father Sullivan served as curate at Sts. Peter and Paul told me in the 1980's that their parents referred to the newly ordained priest as “the Chrysostom, the golden-tongued priest” of their times. He spent countless hours in the confessional, celebrated the Mass with dignity, and became known as a man who would help married couples in distress and who saw it as a first duty of his to inspire young men to study for the priesthood (which is part of the reason that fifty-eight priests were in attendance at his Novus Ordo funeral service on May 19, 2000) Father John Sullivan, however, was still the mischievous Jackie Sullivan of 244 Griswold Street in West Hartford, Connecticut.

The housekeeper in the rectory at Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Waterbury had a pet cat which she permitted to roam throughout the rectory. Unfortunately for Father Sullivan, the cat had a tendency to relieve himself in Father Sullivan’s very expensive Italian patent-leather shoes. Not being a man to take such indignity lightly, Father Sullivan warned the housekeeper that he would shoot the cat if he did his business in his shoes again. The cat did. Father Sullivan got his pistol. He tracked down the cat in the rectory, finding the critter on the stairwell. To put in mildly, the cat did not survive the shots fired into it.

The housekeeper, who was an Italian immigrant, screamed at the top of her lungs when she found Father Sullivan hovering over her now dead cat. Father Sullivan told her to stop her babbling, reminding her that he had warned her what would happen if the cat continued to roam the rectory unfettered. He then told her to clean up the mess cause by the cat’s demise, telling her that there might be other shootings that day if she didn’t. Actually, he said the following, "Clean up this mess or you're next." Could you imagine what the media would make of such a story today? All right, I know. Not exactly from the Cure of Ars. Remember, though, Padre Pio called immodestly dressed women "clowns."

As noted, Father Sullivan was assiduous in his duties as a parish priest. He did find time, though, to engage in his recreational activities, including playing in a semi-professional football league on Sunday afternoons (those were the days when a parish’s last Mass on Sunday was celebrated around 11:00 am or so: the old fast which forbade anything by mouth–including water–after Midnight was still in force.) Bishop O’Brien questioned Father Sullivan as to why he would play semi-professional football, something that could be seen as beneath the dignity of a priest. Father Sullivan’s pithy response was “You don’t pay me enough. That’s why I play football.” Bishop O’Brien could only smile at the uniqueness of his gifted priest. (Father Sullivan, though, suffered a serious injury playing football in 1952, one that resulted in having part of his left lung removed. That put an end to his playing days at thirty-six years of age.)

Additionally, Father Sullivan served as the baseball coach of the public high school in Waterbury during his years at Sts. Peter and Paul. One of the students he coached was a very high strung Jimmy Piersall, whose over-attentive father pushed the future major leaguer into a nervous breakdown when he was with the Boston Red Sox in the 1950's (the subject of Fear Strikes Out, the movie version of which, ironically, is being shown on the American Movie Classics cable network as I write this reflection on Father Sullivan in a rectory in Lafayette, Indiana, late in the evening on All Saints Day.) Father Sullivan told a number of stories about Piersall, emphasizing the young man’s great baseball talent. (Briefly a member of the New York Mets in 1963, Piersall circled the bases backwards after reaching first base, when he hit his 100th career home run off of future Met manager Dallas Green, a stunt that made Green, whose granddaughter, Christine Taylor Green, was killed in the attack on United States Representatives Gabrielle Giffords five months ago, seethe with anger.)

Father Sullivan continued to enjoy baseball, especially the New York Giants of Mel Ott in the 1930s and Bill Terry in the 1940's. (The Giants moved to San Francisco at the end of 1957, their owner having been coaxed by Brooklyn Dodger owner Walter O’Malley, whose team was being uprooted to Los Angeles, to move to the West Coast along with the Dodgers.) He also enjoyed the nightlife of New York.

Yes, that’s right, Father Sullivan enjoyed the nightlife. He and his pal Father Al Healy would go down to New York from Connecticut now and then. On one occasion, Father Sullivan, dressed in civilian clothes, went dancing cheek to cheek with a “dolly.” While dancing with the dolly, Father Sullivan said, “You see that fellow over there,” pointing to his friend Father Healy. “Well, that guy’s a priest. I wouldn’t have anything to do with him.” Sullivan said with a wink, “Me? I’m a social worker.” The “dolly” knew what the score was, enjoying her dance with the boy from Bulkely High School who like to show off his dancing skills.

On a more serious note, however, Father Sullivan was earning a reputation as a priest who had many talents. Not only was he an exemplary curate and confessor, he related very well with the young, and had the capacity to reach the most hardened of prisoners in his duty as a prison chaplain. Prison authorities would always direct him to the most obstreperous prisoner in the ward which contained convicted murderers.

One mug was causing a great many problems. Thus, the authorities called in Father Sullivan to deal with a man who had murdered three people in a gang-related incident. The convict was full of rage. He challenged Father Sullivan upon seeing him enter his cell. Father Sullivan took off his clerical shirt and collar. He then put up his fists and challenged the man who had challenged him, beating the convicted murderer rather badly. The man then sobbed like a baby, saying that he had longed to be punished for the crimes he had committed. He wound up serving Father Sullivan’s Masses every week thereafter for as long as Father Sullivan served as the prison’s chaplain. The late actor Pat O’Brien’s portrayal of the tough-guy priest had nothing on Father Sullivan, who once talked a distressed father out of murdering the man who had done harm to his daughter, calmly persuading him in a rectory to hand over the gun the man had intended to use to exact his revenge. Father Sullivan knew when to be tough and when to exhibit the compassion of Christ to erring sinners.

For example, Father Sullivan would intersperse pastoral advice in his lectures at Holy Apostles Seminary. “Don’t beat people up in the confessional,” he told us. “You’re a sinner, too, you know. And the penitent hasn’t sinned against you. He’s sinned against Christ, and He has forgiven him, He wants to use you as the means to administer His absolution to him. Be patient and understanding. Never reaffirm a man in his sins. But understand the weakness that leads a person to sin. Give him encouragement and hope.” Father Sullivan put this into practice throughout his priesthood.

To wit, a seminarian at Holy Apostles in the 1980's (who is now a conciliar presbyter) admitted rather publicly of having led a life similar to Saint Augustine’s prior to his conversion. He was doubting his worthiness to be a priest, especially in light of his libertine past. Father Sullivan, he said, reminded him that no man is worthy to say the words of Institution, “This is my Body . . . This is My Blood.” He also told him that sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance no longer exist. “It is as though the sin never existed,” the then seminarian quoted Father Sullivan as saying. He then related Father Sullivan’s recounting of the story of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose spiritual director wanted proof of the fact that Our Lord had appeared to her. He instructed Saint Margaret Mary to ask Our Lord what was the last sin she had confessed. She cam back to confessor to say that our Lord told her that “I forgot.” As Father Sullivan explained in class a few days later, “God knows everything. But He chooses to forget our forgiven sins as a sign of His love for us.” The seminarian in question was very impressed by Father Sullivan’s genuine kindness and real understanding of the weakness of the flesh.

Father Sullivan also gave a lot of excellent pastoral advice. "Don't get too close to any one family. Never go to their house for dinner. Why? Are you being mean? Are you being an elitist? No. You are being a priest. You belong to each of your parishioners. An especially close friendship with one family will cloud your objectivity and make it difficult for you to serve others well if some kind of conflict occurs. People sense favoritism, and they will hate you for it if you give even a whiff of it. Be polite to everyone. Keep company with your fellow priests. Mark my words. Mark them well. You get too close to one family and they will ask you for a favor that will compromise you, and once you begin to compromise you will lose your priestly integrity. Your own priestly interests are not identical with the interests of any one person or any one family. I've seen too much damage done by done by priests who did not understand this or who once understood it but gave in for purposes of human respect and convenience. Don't let this happen to you."

Father Sullivan’s reputation grew to legendary proportions in the 1940s and 1950s. People flocked to him for confession. He was sought after by the police to serve as their chaplain, even accompanying them on raids. He said, "Look, I was in the line of fire a number of times on those narco raids. This man's priesthood is not for cowards. We're not to live in fear of what anyone says about us or threaten to do us. So what if you get killed in the line of your priestly duty? So what? It's the straight ticket up! Why be afraid that someone is going to pick you off or stick you in the gut with a knife? Who cares? Do your priestly work and don't look to see who's gaining on you. Where did I learn that line? From the great Satchel Paige. You satisfied now?"

Priests who got in trouble with booze or women came to him with their problems. Bishops sought him out for his theological advice. Ever content to be the pastor of souls, however, he resisted all efforts on the part of others to promote his cause for the episcopacy. He received an appointment as a Prelate of the Papal Household in the 1950s, responding by throwing the attire worn by monsignors out of a window. “That’s not for me,” he said. “That’s not for me.”

What was for him was the service of the salvation of souls. He spent many hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament in prayer. A devoted son of Our Lady, there was never a day in Father John J. Sullivan’s priestly life that he did not pray the Rosary, a practice which began in the Sullivan household on 244 Griswold Street in West Hartford, Connecticut, during his youth. It was the twin pillars of Eucharistic piety and Marian devotion which saw him through all aspects of his priestly of his priestly service. Indeed, it was those twin pillars which enabled him to have such a profound impact upon those who met him.

It was in the 1950s that Father Sullivan was summoned to a maximum security Federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. A hardened criminal had asked to see him, Father John J. Sullivan. The identity of the criminal was kept from Father Sullivan. The criminal turned out to be a classmate of Father Sullivan’s from Bulkely High School. He knew that his classmate and former high school football teammate would help him answer some tough questions about what had happened in the intervening twenty years.

“Jackie boy, how did it happen, Jackie boy? How did it happen, Jackie boy?” the man asked plaintively. “You were the roughest and the toughest of us all. You were the ones the girls wanted to dance with cheek to cheek. You were the brightest of our class. You were the one who everyone envied. Good family, wealth, good looks, brains, brawn. How did it happen, Jackie boy, that I am here and you are there? How did it happen, Jackie boy?” the man asked over and over again.

“I don’t know,” Father Sullivan replied. “I guess the only answer is grace. My family taught me never to miss Mass, to love God through His true Church above all else, to seek salvation of souls, starting with my own. But you can turn your life around. Your cause in not hopeless. Although you may never get out of prison, you can still devote yourself to the cause of Christ and His Church right her is this prison cell.”

The “Jackie boy” story became the stuff of legends over the years. Father Sullivan told the story on a number of occasions. To be honest, he told the stories of his life many times to the same people. But it was because those stories were absolutely priceless–and because each of them had a real pastoral message to them–that those who had heard three or four or five times before listened attentively as they knew the man who was recounting them, whether he knew it or not, wanted us to know what a manly priest is, and how the priesthood should always be composed of men, “not wimps or fairies.”

Father’s love of baseball was also the stuff of legends. As one who played and coached the game, he knew “inside baseball” talk very well. He could analyze a pitchers strengths and weaknesses better than professional scouts. And he got to his fair share of games over the years. He was at the Polo Grounds when Bobby Thompson hit the famed “shot heard round the world” on October 3, 1951, as his beloved Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best two out of three game playoff series for the National League Pennant.

He was at the 1953 World Series in Brooklyn, watching the Dodgers play the Yankees at Ebbets Field. It was during one game of that World Series that Father Sullivan bought a hotdog from a vendor, wolfing it down almost as soon as it was out of the vendors hand. As he told the story: “That one was so good,” he said, “that I bought a second one and ate it just as fast as I had the first one. Everyone was staring at me as I ate the hot dogs. I got up and asked out loud, ‘What are you staring at? Who do you think I am, Moses, Abraham?’ Then a man said, ‘Father, it’s Friday.’ And I said, ‘Oops! Two on the house, Lord Two on the house.” Everyone around him laughed. But it’s quite a telling commentary on the state of the Church in the 1950s that people would be scandalized by a priest eating meat on a Friday. It was an inadvertent act on the part of Father Sullivan. Still and all, thought, it aroused the shock of those who were watching him eat the hot dogs with delight.

Father Sullivan also went to the 1957 World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees. As he waited on line to go through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium, a man was pushing him from behind. Father Sullivan did not like that at all. He told the man, “Look, you do that again and you’re going to taste knuckles.” I asked Father what happened. He said, “Oh, yeah, the guy tasted knuckles all right.” And without a ticket to Game 5 of the 1969 World Series between the New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles at Shea Stadium on October 16, 1969, Father found himself seated next to original Mets broadcaster Lindsey Nelson throughout the game. Father was chowing down on a steak as Lindsey, who broadcast Mets games from their inception in 1962 to the end of the 1978 season, awaited his turn to broadcast half of the game on television with NBC-TV announcer Curt Gowdy.

Father Sullivan had moved on from Waterbury to assignments as a curate in St. Mary’s Church in Portland, Connecticut, All Saints Church in Somersville, Connecticut, and St. Francis Church in Middletown. It was in 1960 that he was made the pastor of Notre Dame Church in Durham, Connecticut, a rural community south of Middletown. He was also the founding pastor of St. Colman Church in Middlefield, Connecticut, in 1964. Father taught the faith clearly. He served the people entrusted to his pastoral care tirelessly. And it was during these years that Father Sullivan became the chaplain of the Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association serving frequently as their keynote speaker. He never ceased to inspire those who listened to him, bringing many souls back into the faith in the process. He was also sought after by many of his brother priests, who engaged him to give parish missions to their own parishioners. Never taking anything for granted, Father Sullivan prepared for each and every single one of his talks. And, as noted above, being no stranger to danger over the years, he accompanied the police on raids where he was shot at on a number of occasions.

Father Sullivan’s final pastoral assignment was a Saint Mary’s Church in Portland. It was from there that Father Sullivan moved to Holy Apostles Seminary in 1975 to begin his career as a teacher of dogmatic theology. Father had a number of disputes with chancery officials over the years concerning the direction of the Diocese of Norwich. He believed that homosexuals were being screened into the priesthood and that the chancery office itself had become, in his view, a “nest of fairies, fruits, and queers.” Thus, he wanted to be in a position to help form men correctly for the priesthood, and to screen out those who exhibited effeminate qualities. His career at Holy Apostles made a tremendous mark on the lives of literally scores of men who are now priests around the nation.

Father Sullivan demonstrated himself to me early on as a man whose tough words were always backed up by strong action. There was a priest at Holy Apostles in 1983 who was trying to claim that Eucharistic adoration was no longer the mind of the Church (sound familiar?). This fellow quoted selectively from Papal documents, even going so far as to distort the words of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, whose embrace of Modernism, which is a mixture of truth and error, coexisted with his desire to promote what the thought was Eucharistic adoration, into making it appear as though such adoration had been eclipsed. I wrote a seven-page refutation of the priest’s contentions, pointing out how he had been intellectually dishonest. Father Sullivan backed me up in a meeting the faculty called to discuss the matter, a meeting which preserved the practice of having what we thought was weekly Exposition, Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday nights at Holy Apostles. Father Sullivan was not afraid to take a stand against on of the priests who belonged to the Missionary Society of the Holy Apostles, under whose auspices the college and seminary had originated and had been run until the late 1980s (it is now under the control of the Diocese of Norwich).

Although it happened a year or so before my arrived in Cromwell, the story of how Father Sullivan defended the honor of our Lady had traveled a long way from Holy Apostles. This occurred when a supposed “Scripture scholar” repeated the lie a Jewish historian about Our Lady, so blasphemous in fact that it will not be repeated here. Father Sullivan confronted this priest and beat the living daylights out of him. In his own pixie way, Father Sullivan told the rector, “The guy just slipped. He kept getting up and falling down again on my fists.” The fellow never again repeated his blasphemy against Our Lady. That’s what you call real Catholic Action, huh?

Father Ronald Bibeau of the Society of Saint Pius X recalled a few "Jackie Boy" stories when we visited Albuquerque in January and February of 2006. Father Bibeau recalled these stories with tears of laughter!

One of those stories involved Father Sullivan's teaching us that God created animals to serve man. "Look, if I've got Bambi in my sights, he's going down. Bambi's dead. "

Another involved two women who were given permission by the academic dean to audit his class for a day. Father Sullivan, who disagreed with the seminary policy of having women study with seminarians, asked the women why they were there. When they told him that they were going to be auditing his class for the day, Father Sullivan said, "Oh, that's good. Class has been canceled for today." He walked out of the class immediately thereafter.

Father Bibeau also told the story about a student who had blurted out in class that he had been so moved by a Protestant's baptizing people in the Connecticut River that he went down and got himself re-baptized. Enraged, Father Sullivan went over to the student, grabbed him by the collar and physically threw him out of the class, closing the door behind him. Saint Anthony of Padua, Hammer of Heretics, call your office.

The rector of Holy Apostles at the time was Father Leo Ovian. He relied heavily upon Father Sullivan for both theological and administrative advice. No other priest on campus had as many spiritual advisees as Father Sullivan, who spent his weekends assisting his old friend and partner in seminary hijinks Father Al Healy at St. Mary’s Church in North Branford, Connecticut. Father continued to help out at St. Mary’s until the death of his old pal as a result of throat cancer in October of 1985. Father Sullivan’s reflection on the priesthood during Father Healy’s Novus Ordo funeral service was praised by each of three conciliar bishops in attendance, including the then Archbishop of Hartford, the now deceased John Francis Whealon, who was a true bishop.

Although I did not, quite thankfully, receive sponsorship during my year at Holy Apostles (and became burdened with tuition debt that I did not finally pay off until January of 1999), I remained in contact with Father Sullivan after leaving Holy Apostles in May of 1985. Making use of his wisdom and knowledge, I brought him down to Long Island on a number of occasions to speak to the members of the Hofstra University Pro-Life Club. He had an enormous impact on the lives of the young people who belonged to that club. And although I was not on the faculty at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, one of my former students (who later converted to the Faith) from Nassau Community College in 1983 had invited me to be the club’s de facto faculty advisor.

Father Sullivan came down to address the club in late 1984 for the first time. Actually, I drove up to Connecticut to pick him up as he was not wont to drive extraordinarily long distances. But he never refused any request I made of him to speak to my students. He heard their confessions and gave them spiritual direction. He enjoyed their company, finding an entirely new group of people to whom he could spin his wonderful stories about his life as a priest. Playing the role of Johnny Carson, I would lead the witness, so to speak, into telling the story which fit a particular occasion.

One of the young people who belonged to the Hofstra Pro-Life Club, who was twenty-three years of age at the time, developed a very special bond with Father Sullivan. In truth, he took a liking to her as soon as he saw her at Friday’s restaurant in Westbury, New York, where we were having a gathering after his first talk at Hofstra (which Maryann had missed). “Come on over here, dolly.” Father Sullivan chirped. “You can sit right next to me.” The two of them became very good friends, and Father Sullivan was a tremendous influence on her family. Indeed, whenever I would speak to Father on the phone after that point one of his first questions would always be “How’s [so-and-so]?” She would ask me, “How’s my boyfriend, Jackie boy?” (He told the “Jackie boy” story a number of times to the members of the groups. His recitation of it became something we expected whenever we got together with him. We would all smile at each other as we mouthed the story in synchronization with Father’s recounting of it. But Father was especially lonely after the death of his pal Father Al Healy. The young people gave him a new audience to influence and new people with whom to keep company.

Sadly, changes at Holy Apostles in 1985 did not auger well for Father Sullivan. A new rector only wanted men who had advanced theological degrees teaching in the seminary. Father Sullivan knew more that almost anyone with an advanced degree. But out Father Sullivan went. He took up residence first in St. Joseph’s Church in Rockville, Connecticut, then moving with the pastor, Father Al Kisluk, when he was transferred in 1988 to Saint Mary’s Church in Middletown, a community where Father Sullivan was very well known.

Although “retired” from official diocesan duties, Father Sullivan was, for all intents and purposes, a full curate at Saint Mary’s, handling all of the pastoral duties that any priest who was formally assigned there would be expected to fulfill. He did get away for a few weeks in January to a condominium he owned in Naples, Florida (his father had left him a good many shares in Aetna, and Father Sullivan invested his money very astutely). But he was at Saint Mary’s from the time he arrived there in 1988 until late-1997 when even he knew that he was slowing down at the age of 81 and could no longer do all the things he had been so used to doing over the years for the salvation of souls. And although no longer officially at Holy Apostles as a teacher of dogmatic theology, a former student of his who had been ordained for the Missionary Society of the Holy Apostles brought him in to teach homiletics to the students in the 1990s.

Father Sullivan was always gracious when I would bring new people to meet him. I introduced him to several priests from Long Island, after whom Father Sullivan would always inquire (after the student from Hofstra, obviously). Some of the students from the Hofstra Pro-Life Club kept in contact with him. He met a number of my students from St. John’s University. And he agreed to give a parish mission at the now married former student's parish, Saint Patrick’s Church in Southland, New York, in late-July of 1992, making the trek down from Connecticut via the Orient Point, New York, to New London, Connecticut, ferry.

The parish mission was outstanding. Father had not lost anything intellectually. However, both former student and I wondered if he would tell the “Jackie boy” story before the mission was over. He had not done so on the first four nights of the mission. Sure enough, though, he told the story on the final night. Neither the student, who was sitting several pews, in front of me, nor I dared to look at each other. We would not have been able to contain our laughter. Following the end of that final night though, two men who had been away from the Faith for forty years approached Father Sullivan to ask him to hear their confessions. They had heard about the retreat from friends of theirs. Afterwards, Father Sullivan, without violating the seal of the confessional, said, “those were the two fish I came down here to catch. Remember, no one is ever a stranger to Our Lord. No one. Those who are 'strangers' to us are known by Our Lord. He died for them. He loves them. He wants you to treat them the way you would treat Him in the flesh. Got that? Never be suspicious of a stranger, because it might be that person's last chance to save his soul. Remember that." I do, Father Sullivan, I do.

Father Sullivan never stopped helping the men he had taught at Holy Apostles Seminary. He preached at many of their initial Novus Ordo services. I attended two such Masses, one for a presbyter of the Diocese of Metuchen in 1987 and the other for one in the Diocese of Fargo in North Dakota in 1989. How ironic it was that Father Sullivan would make his way out to North Dakota at a time I was serving in the diocese as "Bishop" James S. Sullivan’s Director of Communications. As I drafted "Bishop" Sullivan's "homily," he agreed to include a reference to Father John Sullivan’s influence on Father Miller during the latter’s installation service at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. The closing line of the reference went something along the lines of, “And you know that you usually can’t go wrong with someone named Sullivan.” Father Sullivan was pleased to hear the "bishop’s" reference to him. He remained a vital influence in the lives of the priests whose formation he helped to facilitate.

Although his failing health made it impossible to go to Washington in October of 1999, I accepted The Wanderer Forum Foundation’s “God and Country Award” in his behalf at the Washington Marriott on October 16, 1999. The Foundation had a marvelous plaque made up to honor a truly outstanding priest and man. I am so grateful to John Blewett, [the then] President of the Foundation, and the other board members for honoring Father Sullivan in this way before he died.

The fact that Father Sullivan lived to age 83 is remarkable when you consider he smoked like a chimney and drank coffee like it was water until the day he collapsed in the home of his childhood in West Hartford last May, where he lived with his sister Rita. Father had taken the death of his sister Jean in 1996 really hard. Rita and Jean would trade good-natured insults with their brother, who gave back to them as good as he got. It was fascinating to see the three of them in action. As one priest friend of mine commented, “This is like having three Sullies in one room. They’re all characters, including the sisters.” And his other surviving sister, Barbara, had to be placed in a long-term care facility a while ago. Thus, he was very concerned when Rita suffered a minor stroke in January, worrying about who would take care of him. As God's Holy Providence would have it, I was able to speak to Rita shortly before she died in 2008, having been put in contact with her by one of her nieces who had read this article online. I am glad that I did so.

Well, it is not up to us in the Church Militant to care for Father John J. Sullivan’s immortal soul. We can never presume the judgment of God on any soul. If Father Sullivan has no need of our prayers, Our Lady apply the merits of our prayers and Masses we have said for him to some other deserving souls. Without presuming God’s judgment on Father Sullivan for one moment, however, I would think that this great and devoted priest who spent himself in behalf of the cause of Christ and His Church so completely will have his eternal reward sooner rather than later. He may even be enjoying it at present. But he was always one to encourage people to pray for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed no mater what. “You don’t know for sure if someone is in Heaven,” he said repeatedly, “unless the Church declared that person to be a canonized saint. Keep praying and praying and praying for the souls of the faithful departed.”

Jackie boy, you are still missed. I quote you all the time. We pray for your soul every day. If I have anything to do with it, however, your life and the legends associated with it will not be forgotten. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul– and all the souls of the faithful departed–rest in peace. Amen.

An Afterword

I hope that you have enjoyed this tribute to a legendary priest. As you can see, he had many faults. He was a rascal who enjoyed breaking the rules. However, he did love souls, many of whom, I am sure, profited unto their eternal salvation from his pastoral care.

Father Sullivan came to mind when my wife and I met Father Frederick Schell in Granada Hills, California, on March 11, 2002. Much had changed in my own life between the time of Father Sullivan's death and meeting Father Schell, who was truly responsible for helping me to see the lie of the "indult" and the necessity of providing the faithful with the Immemorial Mass of Tradition in this state of emergency. Father Schell's own manliness and matter-of-fact manner about him reminded me ever so much of Father Sullivan. I noted in my tribute to Father Schell, which was written on the day of his death, September 28, 2002, that he, Father Schell, probably gave "Jackie Boy" Sullivan a punch in the nose for not "getting it" about Tradition when he met him in eternity. The two would have gotten on famously in this life. Both of them fought for the Faith with their fists. Father Schell was simply given more graces to see our situation clearly and to act decisively, although even he did not come to the conclusion that others of his generation did concerning the true state of the Church Militant in this time of apostasy and betrayal. As my dear wife Sharon has noted, Father Sullivan was so caught up in the problem of the infestation of perverts into the priesthood that he did not see that there was a connection between that infestation and the whole ethos of conciliarism.

May more and more priests exhibit the manliness of Fathers Sullivan and Schell, both of whom were very devoted to Our Lady, in defending the Catholic Faith in a time of apostasy and betrayal.

Here's "Jackie Boy, "Sully," Father John Joseph Sullivan, September 15, 1916- May 15, 2000




© Copyright 2011, Thomas A Droleskey. All rights reserved.