Pedaling Catholic Education

Father James Sullivan, of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., readies ‘Our Father’s Ride’ for Catholic education.

Father James Sullivan, shown with his 25-year-old bike, wears his clerics on rides.
Father James Sullivan, shown with his 25-year-old bike, wears his clerics on rides. (photo: Courtesy of St. Peter/St. Francis School in Torrington, Conn.)

Father James Sullivan was ordained in May 2014 for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. His journey took him from co-owning a home-contracting company with his brother to the priesthood. Today, he serves a group of parishes in Torrington, Conn.

In an earlier interview with the Register, he described his vocational discernment: “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.’”

Now, his love for the priesthood and Catholic education combine with his lifelong interest in bicycling in “Our Father’s Ride,” which he is leading this spring.


How and why did you form “Our Father’s Ride”?

Being a new priest and a priest in a parish with a school, I have quickly come to love and appreciate Catholic education even more than I have in the past. I have a great love for the children in the school, too. My own love for the Church was developed and nurtured greatly by my own Catholic education as a child.

It’s no secret that the majority of schools need significant fundraising efforts in order to operate properly. Speaking recently to my sister, Sister Veronica Mary Sullivan of the Sisters of Life, about this, she knew how much I loved bicycle riding — I’ve been an avid bike rider all my life. She said, “Why don’t you do that to raise funds and to promote the school?”

We decided to have a destination. We picked Emmitsburg, Md., because of the connection with Sister Elizabeth Ann Seton, who is credited with beginning the parochial school system in the United States. This ride and destination — the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg — is going to be a pilgrimage of prayer for the school and an opportunity to raise funds for it.


All of a sudden, the plan seemed to grow. How did that happen?

I said to myself, “If I’m going on this ride, why ride alone?” As I talked to other people, it began to develop it. Based on the desire to promote the schools and the face of Catholic education, as well as the financial needs that we have, I also thought it would put a wonderful face on the priesthood, having priests ride for their schools.

I met with our Archbishop Leonard Blair, and he gave us his blessing and support. I met with Dale Hoyt, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese and his staff, and they are extremely excited about it. I have their full support.

Now, we developed the website, which came out on Jan. 21.


When will this pilgrimage ride take place?

We’re leaving on May 29, from our [St. Peter/St. Francis] school in Torrington and riding seven miles to the Lourdes in Litchfield Shrine in Litchfield, Conn. I’m going to ride myself, and the older school children, the principal of the school and parents are going to be riding with me for those seven miles through the scenic Litchfield landscape to the shrine.

Other priests will join me there. We will have the formal sendoff at 10am, after Morning Prayer and the blessing of the bikes. Then we’ll travel 50 miles a day, which is considered a moderate distance, so as to include those riders who might be a little older but still in good riding shape who would like to join us in the ride. For this ride, a priest needs to be in reasonable shape but doesn’t need to be an athlete.


Who will the riders be?

It is for priests and seminarians. Each priest will be riding for his own school, so there is the incentive to raise as much funds as possible for his school, through per-mile sponsorships by individuals and businesses.

We have 58 schools in the Archdiocese of Hartford. I plan to call each of them to see if a priest can ride from that parish. If a priest isn’t able to, we’re including the seminarians, so a seminarian can ride for the particular school.

We have just begun promoting the ride, and, already, we have six priests interested. Each one has started to get into shape and propose the idea to businesses and individual sponsorships.


What are you personally aiming to raise for your school?

My goal is to raise between $100,000 and $150,000. In Torrington, we already have a $25,000 matching-gift donor. I think other schools can do the same. It’s such a unique fundraising opportunity that people will gravitate to it.

It’s one thing to ask a person for a $100 donation for the school. It’s an entirely different question to ask, “Will you support me in a pilgrimage of prayer for our school if your priest is riding 350 miles? Will you give me 35 cents a mile?”

People are already saying, “Father, I would love to help you on this.” They see their priest putting in a strong effort out of love for the school.

Every priest will be riding for his own school.


Is this only for priests and seminarians from your diocese?

We’re inviting priests from all over Connecticut and from “wherever.” As we go through New York, we hope to pick up New York priests; the same from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We’re going to contact the bishops of other dioceses along the route for their support.

Priests anywhere, from up to 500 miles from the national shrine, can also join us. We all will meet there on the same day. We already seem to have some interest from priests in other dioceses.

It’s going to take us seven days — 50 miles a day. The route is all planned [a map appears on the website]. It’s on scenic roads not heavily traveled. Only priests coming from different locations — leaving from Ohio, for example — will have to coordinate their own route

We’ll be staying at hotels and have Mass each morning before starting out. We’ll arrive in Emmitsburg on June 4, spend the night at the Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, have prayer, dinner and an evening of priestly fraternity; and then, the next morning, Friday, June 5, we will meet at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, for Mass, lunch and then departure. So it’s a one-way bike trip. We’re taking a bus back to Connecticut. The bikes will go back by truck.


Are you doing anything special along the way so that people know these are priests riding?

We’re riding in our clerics. Bike shorts are black anyway. We’re going to have very safe orange reflector shirts and beneath that a V-neck to see our black clerical shirts and the collar. So we’re going to ride as priests and seminarians. That’s going to be very unique. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing 50 to 100 priests riding together.

Do you have any goals for along the way?

If any Catholic schools in the towns we are going through would like it, we will stop in maybe during the school day to give a talk about the ride itself and about Catholic education. This is a way to let them [the children and parents] see the love priests have for Catholic schools.

Since school will be in session, every day we’re going to Skype the schools we’re all riding for. Before the school day starts, the kids are going to see how we’re doing and where we are, so they can follow us along the way.

We’ll be praying for them, so students can pray for us while we’re riding. It’s going to generate a lot of enthusiasm, not only among clergy, but among students and parents.


Have you done much long-distance bicycling yourself?

I’ve done bike riding for many years in different parts of the country. My bike is a 1990 Cannondale made in Connecticut. It turns 25 this year! My bike has essentially ridden around the world.

My bike riding is an opportunity for a retreat, a time of prayer and contemplation. I’ve been doing that for years and years. On a number of occasions, I rode to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., on a pilgrimage of prayer.

In the ’90s, before becoming a deacon, I rode from the Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal to my home in Connecticut and stopped at many churches along the way. Whenever I saw a Catholic church, I stopped in and said a prayer.


What are your overall hopes for this pilgrimage ride?

It’s for Catholic education, and, at the same time, it’s also to promote the priesthood, vocations and priestly fraternity, not to mention good health. I really think we’re going to have a wonderful time together as priests.

I believe this pilgrimage can, by God’s grace, be tremendously successful, wonderful for both the priesthood and for Catholic education.

                                                                                                                                                                    Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.