Sullivan, John (1861–1933), Jesuit priest, was born 8 May 1861 at 41 Eccles Street, Dublin, the youngest child in a family of four sons and one daughter of Edward Sullivan (qv), barrister, and his wife Elizabeth (Bessie) Josephine (née Baily) of Passage West, Co. Cork. There is an impressive perspective from the doorstep of the old Sullivan home sweeping down to the elegant and noble dimensions of St George's church, Hardwicke Place, where John was baptised into the Church of Ireland on 15 July 1861. Soon after John's birth, the Sullivan family moved to the more fashionable south side of Dublin where they settled at 32 Fitzwilliam Place. This was to be the Sullivan home for more than forty years. John had one sister, Annie, and three brothers, Edward (qv), Robert (who drowned in a boating accident in Killiney Bay), and William, a resident magistrate. According to the tradition of the time the Sullivan boys were brought up in their father's protestant faith and their sister Annie followed her mother and was raised a catholic.
In 1873 John and his brother William were sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, as their older brothers had been before them. Portora's reputation had grown considerably under Dr William Steele (qv), an enlightened and progressive headmaster. John's years at Portora were happy. In one of his few published writings he gives an insight into his school life, writing of his first arrival at Portora ‘bathed in tears’, but when, five years later, the time came for him to leave he wept ‘more plentiful tears’. After Portora he became an undergraduate at TCD, where in 1883 he was awarded the gold medal in classics. Having achieved a junior moderatorship in classics, he started to study law. But in 1885 he was devastated by the sudden death of his father, then lord chancellor of Ireland. He subsequently continued his studies at Lincoln's Inn, where he was called to the English bar in 1888. Due to his inheritance, he was financially comfortable, and was noted for his fashionable dress and good looks. He travelled a great deal throughout Europe and was a cycling enthusiast. While in Greece he visited the monastery of Mount Athos and was deeply marked by the experience.
In December 1896, to the utter surprise of his family, he became a catholic and was received into the church at Farm Street Jesuit church in London. His family was ‘shell shocked’ when the news reached Dublin, according to Nedda Davis, granddaughter of his brother William. Not that the members of his family were hostile to his decision. His mother was a devout catholic but John had never shown any particular interest in religion. More surprises were to follow when his manner of life changed sharply. He adopted a simple style of living that was also reflected in his manner of dress. From this time he was a regular visitor to the Hospice for the Dying in Harold's Cross in south Dublin, and helped the poor in many ways. Then in September 1900 he entered the Jesuit noviciate at Rahan, which was known as Tullabeg, near Tullamore, Co. Offaly. In September 1902 he took his vows for life as a member of the Society of Jesus. Having studied philosophy at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, he returned to study theology at Milltown Park, where he was ordained on Sunday 28 July 1907. He was then sent to teach in Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare. From that time, with the exception of the period 1919–24, when he was rector of the Jesuit house at Rathfarnham Castle, he was a member of the Clongowes community. Most of the boys whom he taught considered him to be different to other Jesuits. He was regarded as a holy man but, like many a good scholar, was a poor teacher.
His reputation for holiness went far beyond the classroom at Clongowes. He also ministered from the People's Church, which served as a chapel of ease to people who lived in the environs of Clongowes. He was much sought after as a confessor and spiritual guide. The poor and the needy found him to be a reliable friend, and he was a constant visitor of the sick. Stories of his care of the sick are legion, as are claims to have been cured by his prayers (detailed by Fergal McGrath in his biography). His reputation as a healer continues, and his cause for canonisation has been pursued.
Sullivan lived a rugged and ascetic life. His meals were simple, mainly a diet of dry bread, porridge, rice and cold tea. He slept little, spending most of the night in prayer. His room at Clongowes lacked even simple comforts. The fire in winter was lit only when he was expecting a visitor. His life of austerity and prayer reflected the hardship and simplicities of the early Desert Fathers. He wore the worn patched clothing of the very poor. To the time of his death he was in demand as a preacher of retreats to religious communities of men and women, which again provided an experience of holiness rather than eloquence. One interest from the past which he maintained was an interest in cycling. His old-fashioned bicycle was a familiar sight on the roads around Clane, and he was known to have cycled to Dublin on more than one occasion to visit the sick. When not travelling by bicycle, he usually walked, a stooped, shuffling figure.
Nothing is known of his political views at a time of political upheaval in Ireland. He always maintained close contact with his protestant family who reciprocated his warm affection and concern. His brother Sir William (d. 1937) travelled from England to be with him when he was dying.
He enjoyed good health until shortly before his death, maintaining his rigorous round of visits to the sick, giving retreats and working in Clongowes. On the morning of 17 February 1933 he suffered violent internal pain and was brought to St Vincent's nursing home on Leeson Street where he died 19 February 1933. He was buried at Clongowes but his remains were exhumed in 1960 and transferred to the Jesuit church of St Francis Xavier on Gardiner Street. The popular novelist, Ethel Mannin, based her novel Late have I loved thee (1948) on Sullivan's life.