Sullivan, Father John Raphael

1984, March 4

Date of Birth: 1907, August 31

March 15, 1984

Dear Confrere:

Although he was becoming weaker over a period of many months at St. Charles Villa, the death of our confrere, John Raphael Sullivan, came suddenly on Sunday morning, March 4, 1984, in Mercy Hospital, Baltimore, to which he had been admitted only two days earlier. Cardiac arrest was given as the cause of death. His funeral was celebrated on March 7th, Ash Wednesday, in the chapel of St. Martin’s Home, Catonsville, with Archbishop William D. Borders the principal celebrant, and his Eminence, Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, presiding, with the final absolution given by Bishop T. Austin Murphy, auxiliary of Baltimore. Also celebrating the Mass were Bishop P. Francis Murphy, auxiliary of Baltimore, and Bishop Thomas W. Lyons, auxiliary of Washington, who led the graveside prayers, and some 60 other priests. The eulogy was delivered by his close friend and deep admirer, the Rev. Vincent M. Eaton, S.S.

John Sullivan was born in Springfield, Ohio, on August 31, 1907, the son of John Timothy and Johanna (nee O’Grady) Sullivan. After attending his parish school, he entered St. Charles College, Catonsville, for his final year of high school and the first two years of college to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. Awarded a scholarship to the Basselin College of The Catholic University, Washington, he earned there his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy. While at Basselin, he became interested in Sulpician ministry and was admitted as a candidate for the Society, although his Archbishop in Cincinnati asked him to seek another diocese for incardination. Consequently, after John completed his theological studies at the Sulpician Seminary, Washington, he was ordained a priest in 1934 for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and immediately began the Sulpician year of formation.

The following year Father Sullivan was appointed, along with the Rev. James A. Laubacher, S.S., to the University of Louvain, where he undertook graduate studies in the School of Canon Law, with a specialization in moral theology. He earned the J.C.D. degree in 1939. His father died while Father Sullivan was in the seminary and he then suffered the keen loss of his saintly mother during his first year at Louvain. Throughout the rest of his life, he would retain a close relationship with his two sisters, Joanna and Helen, and his brother, Robert. Another brother died in 1956.

Returning to the United States in 1939, Father Sullivan began an uninterrupted career of 43 years of deep fidelity to Sulpician work. He was first assigned to St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, to teach the introductory course in moral theology, then the introductory course in canon law and the courses in matrimony and pastoral theology. Greatly admired by seminarians as a spiritual director and promoter of athletic activities on campus, Father Sullivan also engaged in much other church work throughout his priesthood for the Archdioceses of Baltimore and Seattle. In Baltimore, he served as moderator of clergy conferences and judge on the matrimonial court, as well as chaplain of Trinity Prep (Maryvale) and, later, of the orphanage, St. Mary’s Villa, where the young girls venerated him and kept in touch with him long after they grew into adult life. In later years he was deeply appreciated by the people of St. Agnes Church for his devoted weekend service.

In 1952, recognizing his readiness for greater responsibilities, his superiors assigned Father Sullivan to be president and rector of St. Edward’s Seminary in Seattle. There he quickly won the deep respect and friendship of Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly. They both liked firm leadership with straight-forward style. With both major and minor seminaries housed in one building at St. Edward’s under very crowded conditions, the Archbishop and Father Sullivan soon began to develop plans for a new major seminary, which was completed in 1958 under the title of St. Thomas Seminary.

Father Sullivan also served the Archdiocese as defender of the bond of marriage, as he did also later in Baltimore, continued to teach matrimony and pastoral courses, and during summers directed numerous retreats around the country for priests and women religious. Those highly successful years led to his appointment to the Sulpician provincial council from 1956 to 1971, to election as a delegate to the General Assemblies of 1966 and 1972, and to several Provincial Assemblies. His most significant contribution at the generalate level of the Society was surely to the committee on the revision of the Constitutions, a project undertaken after the Second Vatican Council. He himself had participated in the first session of the Council as a peritus of Archbishop Connolly.

His attendance at the Vatican Council was abbreviated by Father Sullivan’s appointment in 1963 to the rectorship of St. Mary’s Seminary. Returning from Seattle to the scene of some of his finest work as a Sulpician, he was soon to be disappointed by the challenges that faced him there. The next three years were untypically turbulent at St. Mary’s, as in most American seminaries, which in part reflected a malaise in the whole country following the assassination of President Kennedy, along with the civil rights struggle of those years. Working with an ailing provincial superior and a divided faculty and student body, Father Sullivan found those times very painful and discouraging, times that defied the clarity he always championed as a priestly ideal, even while he drew much strength from his Ordinary, Cardinal Shehan. In 1966, he submitted his resignation from the office.

Undaunted in his desire to give his best efforts to the Society of St. Sulpice, Father Sullivan took up residence at the old seminary on Paca Street and began a new career as dean of major seminary studies, and the following year as provincial secretary, a position he would fulfill until 1977, with unflagging energy and his customary meticulous care, serving at the same time as administrative assistant to the provincial superior. In 1969, when the philosophy department on Paca Street merged with the junior college at St. Charles to form the four-year St. Mary’s Seminary College, Father Sullivan remained in charge at Paca Street during the difficult years when the old building was used by various public and private agencies in a futile effort to meet the expenses of maintaining the place. He, in turn, assisted with the complex negotiations which resulted in the building’s demolition and the purchase of most of the property by the City of Baltimore that would be reconstructed as St. Mary’s Park. At the same time, he oversaw the renovation of the former convent of the old seminary as a priests’ residence and played a major role in the planning and construction of St. Charles Villa, adjacent to the College, which would serve a truly visionary need for retired Sulpicians.

Becoming director of St. Mary’s Residence of Paca Street also involved Father Sullivan in overseeing the Mother Seton House and the old seminary chapel, where he personally attended to the restoration of the basement chapel so closely associated with the beginnings of religious orders founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange. In 1980, the Seton Hill Association cited Father Sullivan for his service to the neighborhood. In 1982, he finally gave up his long active career and retired to St. Charles Villa.

May Father John Sullivan, who labored with such diligence and loyalty for the formation of the clergy and the spiritual growth of the people of God, live forever in the joy of the Resurrection.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

William J. Lee, S.S.

Provincial Secretary