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Blessed John Sullivan SJ pilgrimage

Storm Brian did not deter the group of 15 who turned up for the tour of places that were a formative part of the life of  Blessed John Sullivan SJ. They were led by Colette McCarthy, a member of organising committee preparing for the Beatification of Fr. John Sullivan SJ in May. “I said I’d do it and now I’m going to do it,” said Colette, referring to the commitment to lead such a tour, after the success of the Beatification Mass which touched many people at home and abroad.

Colette wanted to lead a tour of the places that touched the heart of Fr. John himself, but her own heart sank when she saw the weather conditions on Saturday morning, 21 October. It soon lifted, however, as the group of pilgrims from all over the country assembled at No 32 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin 2, the home of Fr John, where he was reared in a warm and lively environment.

The house owners, Frank and Tim Foley, graciously admitted the group to the hallway where they gathered on the stairs for a group photograph. “There was something really moving about being in the same rooms where the young John Sullivan had grown up and lived his formative years with his older sister Annie and his brothers Edward, Robert and William and of course his father, Sir Edward and his mother Lady Sullivan,” says Fr Gerry Clarke SJ, the Parish Priest of Gardiner St Church, where Fr John Sullivan’s tomb is enshrined. “And it’s said that it was in this house that the Prime Minister William Gladstone took the Sullivan children on his knee.”

Also in the house, Colette encouraged everyone to think of why they had decided to do the tour. “What is it about Blessed John that draws us and what does it mean to us to be here in his house?” she asked.

The next stop was the Church of the Holy Trinity in Killiney where Sir Edward and his four sons used to worship when on their holidays at Undercliff overlooking Killiney Bay. On the 16th October 1877 John’s brother Robert drowned in the bay along with a 17 year old girl, Constance Exham. Despite having been given and strapped to an oar by Robert Sullivan, Constance Exham drowned. John Exham, her brother, had the other oar and he was picked up by local fishermen from Dalkey who found him holding on to it in a very exhausted state. Constance’s body was recovered and brought that night to her home. Her parents donated the lectern which is still in use, in her memory and also a stained-glass window of Jesus walking on the water with the quotation: “It is I, be not afraid”.

Colette had been in touch with the Holy Trinity Church rector, Rev Niall Sloan, about the pilgrimage. She explained that he couldn’t be there on the day as he had been moved to Limerick, having just been installed as Dean of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in there. But he had been most helpful in the organising of the visit to the Church. “He arranged for a place of collection for the keys so I could open the Church for us all,” says Colette, “And he even had the readings open for us that Robert would have heard read in the church the Sunday before he died.” The reading was from the prophet Isaiah, “and was the very same reading that the group would hear in Sunday Mass the day after the tour,”says Colette, adding, “I was very touched as I listened again, the day after our pilgrimage, to those words of Isaiah,’ I have called you by your name.'”

After prayers for Blessed Fr. John’s canonization the group moved on to Undercliff, the holiday house of the Sullivans. There they were welcomed by Catherine Burke-Kennedy and her family. “The welcome was enormous, generous and joyful, with tea and coffee and chocolate cookies, and I thought this must have been what it was like for the Sullivan family. The house has a beautiful garden and amazing views of the bay,” says Fr Gerry. (See photo).

“It was a privilege to be in the home where Fr John would have spent some happy summers,” says Colette, “but of course all of this was shattered by Robert and Constance’s drowning. Their bodies were never recovered and the tragic event gave Fr. John great empathy for those who suffer bereavement because his mother never fully recovered from it. And there are those who say Fr John is the patron saint of ‘the missing’.”

At the end of the tour the pilgrims viewed the Exham’s house  which can be viewed from the road within a couple of hundred metres from Undercliff, opposite Killiney Dart Station. The tour ended with a look at the ancient church in Killiney and pilgrims were fascinated by the very places that must have had a formative influence on Blessed Fr. John Sullivan SJ.

“Those who missed this tour may well be treated to another one”, says Fr Gerry, “when Blessed Fr John Sullivan become Saint John Sullivan – so keep praying everyone”.