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Father John Sullivan, longtime missionary in Bolivia

By Father Robert M. O’Grady
Posted: 3/7/2008

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Father John L. Sullivan Pilot file photo


Bishop Estanislao Dowlaszewicz Billman, OFM Cap. an auxiliary of the Bolivian archdiocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was the principal celebrant of the funeral Mass of Father John L. Sullivan at Santa Rosa Church, Santa Rosa de Sara on March 1. Joining the bishop were several fellow members of the St. James Society including Father Paul Koch, the homilist; Fathers Roger Clarke and Raymond Cowell as well as a dozen other local priests. Father Sullivan died in Bolivia Feb. 28 after battling several illnesses and diseases and for the past several years Alzheimer’s.

A Boston native and an alumnus of the city’s prestigious Latin School, Father Sullivan completed his seminary formation at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton and Archbishop Richard Cushing ordained him at Holy Cross Cathedral on Jan. 10, 1952. He is the second member of that class to have died this week, the other was Father Robert Kirchmeyer. He is also the second former member of the St. James Society to die this week, Father Milton Eggerling being the other.

Father Sullivan was one of the first members of the fledgling society in 1960. Prior to joining the society he had been an assistant at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Marblehead and Our Lady of Good Counsel, Quincy. He returned from South America for a period between 1962 and 1966 when he was director of the mission department of the society; an assistant first at Holy Trinity, Boston and then at St. Joseph, Lynn.

He returned to the society and to Bolivia in 1966 and except for occasional visits home to Boston he remained at his first love: the Bolivian missions. His accomplishments in Bolivia are the stuff of legend. He founded a parish with a high school but in order to teach and direct it he needed the license of the government--the only field in which he was “licensed” was as a pilot so through that route he became the principal of the high school. He also founded a local minor seminary which has since been replaced by a newer and larger facility to accommodate the growth in vocations.

His pilot’s license provided both an insight into his charter: daring, fearless and determined to use any means need to get the preaching task accomplished and his willingness to take risks for his people. Father George Emerson told the story of bringing Father Sullivan to Norwood Airport where he boarded a new Piper plane and proceeded to fly it solo from Massachusetts to Bolivia, stopping frequently for refueling. He also established a lumber company and became a major exporter from Bolivia, all to provide locals with good jobs, at fair and just wages.

Father Vincent Daily related that he had seen Father Sullivan during a side trip from Peru where he had been in late January with his brother, retired Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily, celebrating with many present and former members of the St. James Society its 50th anniversary. Bishop Daily had been a seminary classmate as well as an original member of the society. The two Daily’s flew over to visit, and the bishop anointed Father Sullivan. As Father Daily said, “He didn’t know us”--the Alzheimer’s had advanced so rapidly.

Father Sullivan’s funeral was at the parish he had served for so many years. Hundreds of mourners came and the Mass was, according to reports, “lengthy and solemn.” Father Sullivan was buried in a specially prepared grave on the grounds of his parish in Bolivia.