The Blessed John Sullivan Exhibition as part of National Heritage Week attracted an audience of 800 people in the People’s Church, Clongowes Wood College SJ, County Kildare, on 25 August 2019. The event, which featured a large collection of newspaper articles on the Irish Jesuit and an audio-visual display on his family, was launched by Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare and Leighlin with the Rector of Clongowes, Michael Sheil SJ, and Conor Harper SJ, Vice Postulator for the cause of John Sullivan, also addressing the audience.
The exhibition had its origins at the National Ploughing Championships last year. Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications, who organised the Jesuit stand at the event, invited Cait Cullen to display images of John Sullivan at the stand. Cait, who is from the Clane area, has been a tireless promoter of the cause of Blessed John Sullivan for many years, and recently received a papal benemerenti medal for this work. The interest shown in the John Sullivan section at the stand and requests for additional information prompted her to organise an exhibition in Clongowes. She then collaborated with the John Sullivan Exhibition Team, a group of lay people in the locality who have provided assistance to the Jesuits with John Sullivan events in recent years.
The exhibition ran from 2 to 5 pm in the People’s Church in the College. The numbers that attended exceeded all expectations. There were long queues at the entrance, which prompted the organisers to extend the opening hours to 6 pm.
The newspaper articles featured in the exhibition dated from 1865 to 2017. They were taken from almost twenty different regional and national newspapers. Some of the earlier ones related to history of John Sullivan’s family, but the greater number concerned his pastoral work, his funeral in Clongowes in 1933, and the exhumation and transfer of his remains to St Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, Dublin, in 1960. More recent articles covered the annual Clongowes Mass and Blessed John’s beatification in Dublin.
Articles on the ecumenical dimension of his life also featured. John Sullivan was a member of the Church of Ireland tradition for the first half of his life and a Catholic in the second half. The Church of Ireland was represented at the event by Deacon John Hillis.
It is intended to show the exhibition at other venues in the near future. And once again, some of these traces of Blessed John’s life and influence will be on display at this year’s National Ploughing Championships, which will be held from 17 to 19 September in Fenagh, County Carlow.
Opening speech of exhibition by Bishop Denis Nulty
This very day last year, in fact around this very time, Pope Francis was celebrating the concluding Mass of his two-day visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. You might remember, it was the wettest day of the summer of 2018. The days that followed led to an intense media debate about how many people actually attended the Mass. Photographs were shown of rows and blocks of empty seats, and yet the same photographs were most likely taken some time before the Mass commenced; even the choir weren’t then in situ.
Blessed John Sullivan spent twenty-one years of his priestly life here, teaching the boys. He was their Spiritual Director, Spiritual Advisor, as he was to many of the sick and forgotten in these parts. When he died in 1933, his remains were interred here for a further twenty-seven years, before the process of exhumation commenced. How interesting I find the exhumation account in Seamus & Cáit’s very informative exhibition this afternoon. The exhumation process was made necessary as Blessed John’s cause developed and intensified.
So Blessed John has an intimate connection with these grounds, with the fresh air outside as he cycled the paths, with the corridors and chapels of Clongowes for forty-eight years. It is only proper then during this National Heritage Week an exhibition should be hosted here in the People’s Church celebrating Blessed John. It is after all the people of Clane, Rathcoffey, Cooleragh, Donadea, Dunboyne, Maynooth, Kilcloon, Naas – you are the locals who have helped John Sullivan, the boy who grew up in Dublin, reared in the Anglican tradition, attended the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and later Trinity College, serving his time on the English law circuit before converting to Catholicism and allowing that conversion to touch the hearts of the poor and needy in these parts.
Returning to the Papal Mass of this very day last year. If he was alive, I very much doubt John Sullivan would have been amongst the congregation in the Phoenix Park either. He would have offered to cover duty in Clongowes. There was someone due to call with a sick child; there was a mother who needed prayers in Rathcoffey; there was a family in need in Donadea; there was a house call to make to Dunboyne. John Sullivan didn’t do pomp and ceremony; he is after all a People’s Saint. How fitting it is that we assemble this afternoon in the Peoples Church; less ornate than the splendid Boys Chapel, but the place where Blessed John celebrated Mass, heard Confession and met the ordinary folk of these parts. Speaking of the numbers who attended the Papal Mass this Sunday last year; back in 1979 my mother who was pretty much a daily Mass goer in her life, didn’t attend any of the ceremonies either. We should therefore be slow to come to rash conclusions around empty seats!
I remember attending a talk on Heritage Week a few years back, it was entitled ‘The things we discover in our Attic’. I am convinced, as we enjoy browsing through the displays that Seamus & Cáit have for all our benefits assembled; the bits and pieces associated with every aspect of Blessed John’s life – photographs, books, articles, newspaper cuttings. I am convinced there are as many more in your attics, in the box under the bed in the spare room that hasn’t been opened in years. Whatever you find will help Blessed John on his road to being recognised as a Saint. What will help him even more is a proven miracle, a recent miracle since his beatification in 2017. We must earnestly keep our prayers going in this regard. Already he is a Saint at a local level; it is imperative that we do everything possible to have him proclaimed one soon at a universal level.
The things that caught my interest in the exhibition were …
• Details of his exhumation from the grounds of the College in 1960 – how dearly I would love to see his body return here for a brief ceremony in the coming years, perhaps when he is canonised?
• The audio-visual telling us something of his family.
• Small insignificant pieces about John, including his parents’ prayer books, they could be from any of our attics!
I am delighted and honoured to open this exhibition celebrating Blessed John Sullivan in this National Heritage Week. And as always I thank Fr Michael, the Rector of Clongowes for his warm welcome always; Fr Conor, the postulator of Blessed John’s cause; Br Charlie, who in my opinion epitomises Blessed John’s ministry today and of course Cáit and Seamus Cullen for keeping Blessed John’s memory so alive for all of us. To all of you gathered here this afternoon, many thanks.