Father James Sullivan: From Reinforcing Homes to Souls
The former carpenter was ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., May 17.
Father James Sullivan was ordained on May 17 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., after a 26-year career owning and operating Sullivan Brothers, LLC, contracting company in Wolcott, Conn., in partnership with his brother John.
After the brothers graduated from Providence College, they co-founded this business spur of the moment on a shoestring budget, with a single $5 ad that grew into a home remodeling and construction company employing 33 people. During his time in the working world, Father Sullivan also became a permanent deacon for the archdiocese, never expecting to someday become a priest.
Father Sullivan is from a family of four boys and two girls. His father, James, and one brother are deceased. His mother, Phyllis, was thrilled to be at his ordination.
In a spirit of great joy, he shared with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen some details and insights about his road to the priesthood and a surprising connection or two that resulted.
How do you see your big step from Sullivan Brothers to priesthood?
It was a big step. My brother and I have a great relationship working together for so long, and we also have a great staff. St. Joseph was a carpenter, and Christ was a carpenter. I have had the privilege of following Christ working with my hands, and now I have the privilege and honor of following Christ in the priesthood.
My calling in life has changed, I suppose, from building and remodeling homes to building and rebuilding hearts. So I’m still in the building and remodeling vocation.
Were you doing any faith-related remodeling in your contracting business?
By the grace of God, the business also ventured into Church restoration. We built the chapel at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, which seats 325 people. We replaced the existing 1950s chapel, which was a converted tool shed, with a beautiful octagonal-shaped chapel with a reverent, prayerful interior.
My brother is now building a chapel for the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Meriden, Conn. It will be completed soon. A great joy will be to celebrate Mass in that chapel my brother built.
Have you had that kind of opportunity yet?
On Monday, June 9, I celebrated Mass in the television studio chapel we built for the Archdiocese of Hartford. It was a tremendous honor to preach from an ambo and celebrate Mass on an altar built by that part of our business called St. Joseph Workshop.
Did the example of your family help you in any way?
When I was 24, I studied with the Dominicans for two years, exploring that vocation and following in my uncle’s footsteps — Dominican Father John McMahon. He taught at Providence College and died two years ago. I love the Dominicans, and I know God had me there for a reason at that young age. Now, as a diocesan priest, much of my spirituality is still Dominican.
Growing up, there was never any pressure from my parents to pursue a particular vocation. My parents simply wanted us to be happy. They did not necessarily pray for priesthood; they prayed for each of us to have a relationship with God. My own faith experience and love for God grew over the years, and that prayer was answered. God’s call to priesthood simply came later. On my Mass card, I put the words of Elizabeth from Luke 1:25, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit.”
Any other religious vocations in your family?
My sister has been a Sister of Life for 15 years — Sister Veronica Mary Sullivan. Previously, she was an Air Force captain, a cardiac nurse, as well as a labor-and-delivery nurse.
I had two aunts who were Sisters of Mercy, missionary nuns to Australia — Sister Mary Melbride O’Sullivan, who was a nun in Brisbane for 75 years and died 10 years ago, and Sister Mary Cataldus O’Sullivan, who died in her 40s.
The pyx and carrying case I have are very special to me, since they are from my aunt, Sister Mary Cataldus. It was a gift to my uncle when he was ordained in 1968. She hand made and embroidered the case in the form of a pelican, one of the symbols of Christ. So I feel my aunt still very much close to me, because I wear this all the time for the Communion calls.
My uncle and aunts were a big help in my decision to become a priest. Many others, including parishioners in Torrington [Conn.], where I was a permanent deacon, said they prayed for me to become a priest. A few said they lit a candle for me every week. I had no knowledge of this until later.
Yet, for the longest time, you had no thought or desire of priesthood, even after you did become a permanent deacon five years ago. Obviously, things eventually changed, to your surprise.
They most certainly did, in God’s time. The Lord called, and the desire then became so strong that no other vocation for the remainder of my life even seemed remotely a consideration. So I gave my half of the business to my brother. He’s doing fine, and he’s very happy that I pursued this.
He and my family and many friends all knew this day was coming, but God had not yet revealed it to me.
When I meet the Lord one day, rather than ask, “Why now?” I’m simply going to say, “Thank you, Lord, for the beautiful gift of priesthood you’ve given me.”
How does what you did in the remodeling business help in your priesthood?
I don’t believe even one minute of my business experience is lost in any way. I believe everything about working in the world will benefit me in my priesthood. I know what it is to pay bills, to worry, to get up every day and have to go to work — the joys and sorrows of the working world and family life. These are the people I’m preaching to every Sunday.
I’m finding that people want to talk to me about issues related to their work and family life.
I also feel a tremendous call for men’s ministry. There is a tremendous crisis of fatherhood and what it means to be a Christian man. I love showing men how normal and natural it is for a man to follow the God who loved them into existence and the real difference it can make in his own life and therefore that of his family and his whole world.
Venerable Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, was most interested in the working man and families too, and he worked in the same diocese. Do you have any particular devotion to him or have any connection, since you’re of the same archdiocese?
Both of us were born in Waterbury and lived on the banks of the Naugatuck River, within walking distance of each other’s homes. For 12 years, I was a parishioner at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, where Father McGivney died. When I first moved to the Thomaston area, I read that Father McGivney replaced Father Gaffney, who died at 40. The history of the church described parishioners as planting flowers around Father Gaffney’s grave during three seasons.
After over 100 years, I again took up that same tradition of beautifying the priest’s graves in the cemetery. Every Sunday for the past 17 years, I have walked and prayed on the path Father McGivney trod into that cemetery. The stairs he walked are still there, and walking them makes me feel close to him.
I always pray for these priests’ intercession and feel a special closeness to Father McGivney, and I believe at least in part my vocation can be attributed to his prayers and intercession.
I and five other students from Providence College had the unique privilege of serving the Mass of his re-entombment from Waterbury to St. Mary’s in New Haven in 1982.
My first Mass on May 17 was at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Father McGivney’s home parish, where I went to daily Mass at 6:15am for many years.
On the dresser by my bed, I have his relic, part of his clothing, and I kiss it each night before falling asleep. I had the relic in my pocket during the ordination ceremony as I was ordained a priest. He was a model priest and one that I would love, by the grace of God, to imitate in some small way.
Tell us about a favorite devotion or saint you have.
I have a favorite blessed, Blessed Margaret of Castello. She was a 14th-century saint who had over 200 miracles attributed to her. She’s considered by many to be the patroness of the unwanted because she was born blind, facially deformed, one leg considerably shorter than the other, and terribly hunchbacked. She was rejected by her parents, who were ashamed of her birth. Despite all these infirmities, she possessed a Christlike heart and was gifted with incredible intelligence.
Margaret lived a life of great infirmity, yet she was always joyful. Her short life of 33 years was far from what many would call the ideal or perfect life, but her soul always sought perfection. In an age when such great emphasis is placed on success, image and worldly perfection, her simple and humble acceptance can be a great inspiration to so many struggling with affliction.
She is, for me, a model Christian and spiritual giant. She affected countless lives for good, and by God's grace working through her, thousands have been profoundly converted to a deeper life of faith and love.
Her body is incorrupt, but I have the privilege of having a first-class relic of Margaret. It is part of her bone, which means that I very likely have one of the very few first-class relics of Margaret in the world. Along with the relic of Father McGivney, I also venerate the relic of Margaret each day. She has been close to me for many years, and I believe that she prays for me.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.