Fr. Sullivan Served the Poor in Argentina

Fr. John Sullivan, M.S., in a
reflective pose for the La
Salette Publication, Our
Lady’s Missionary, in 1965.

Attleboro – As a missionary priest at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, Father John Sullivan's vocation has taken him from the Alpine mountain heights of the Valley of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette in France to the southern tip of South America where he served in the poorest barrios of Argentina for 18 years.

While their paths never crossed in Cordoba, Pope Francis and Father Sullivan share the same mission. "We have drawn life from working for the poor," said Father Sullivan, who has spent 50 years in religious life.

Growing Up in Dorchester

Born in Boston in 1943, Father Sullivan was raised in Dorchester. "Because both my parents were born in Ireland, they were very strong Catholics," he said. "Our faith was so much a part of our lives – it was the air you breathe."

 Father Sullivan received his calling in childhood. "I remember as, a six-year-old boy I dreamed of being a missionary, driving down a dirt road in Africa dodging poison arrows, “he said. “I think it was the pennies I put in the poor box, saving my coins during Lent for the babies in Africa. Even as a child, I had a global sense of the Church."

Father Sullivan went to public school for six years and became an altar boy in the fourth grade. His middle school years were spent at St. Ambrose School, where he was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. "My eighth-grade Sister told my mother, 'John is a good boy, but he bears watching,"' he said laughing. Then he attended Christopher Columbus High School in Boston under the direction of the Franciscans and began to explore religious life.

"My mother and father wanted me to go to St. John's when I finished high school to be close to home," he said. "I had a crush on a girl, but I broke her heart and went into the seminary a junior in high school. I was 16 years old."

To La Salette Seminary in Hartford, CT.

Fr. John (left) with another La Salette
and a group of parishioners in Las
Termas, Argentina.

Father Sullivan attended the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette minor seminary in Hartford, Conn., where he graduated from high school. He spent the next two years in formation at Altamont, N.Y., followed by novitiate in Bloomfield, Conn. Then he studied theology for four years in Catholic University in Washington, DC.

"It was right after Vatican II and an exciting time to live," he said. "There were 90 guys in my class, both diocesan and religious. In our first year we went to school in our habits, but by June we were going to school in jeans." Father Sullivan spent two summers working in the Appalachians of West Virginia, where he said he developed a love for the poor.

Ordained to the priesthood on May 30,1970, he returned to Altamont and taught for the next five years. "I wanted to be a missionary to get away from books, and they gave me a teaching job," he said. "But I didn't know if I had a strong enough character to go (to Latin America). I thought I would fall in love with a pretty young woman down there and leave the priesthood."

His next assignment took him to a Polish parish in Westfield for five years. "That was my first experience of parish life," he said. Father Sullivan studied Scripture at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge with the Jesuits and became co-director of their seminary for five years; but toward the end of his tenure there, the desire to be a missionary intensified.

Back to His La Salette Roots

Fr. John (center) after celebrating Eucharist with
La Salettes and parishioners in the barrio of
José Ignacio Diez in Cordoba, Argentina.

"I began to rediscover the dream I had as a child, and I also learned to love my own La Salette spirituality," he said. Embarking on pilgrimage, Father Sullivan went to France to the site of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette. "I cried," he said. I felt so emotional like I was home, even though I was in France." He spent a month there with other La Salette priests and Brothers from all over the world.

"I needed to make a choice whether to stay in France or to go to Latin America," he said. "I had done poorly with French so I thought I would try Spanish."

Serving in Argentina

At 42, Father Sullivan finally realized his dream. He was sent to Colegio Maryknoll in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to study Spanish for five months. "After I got out of school, I thought I spoke Spanish pretty well," he said.

His first assignment was in Las Termas, Argentina, serving five parishes in the city and 60 communities in the campo (country). He said Mass outdoors under a quebracho tree where the temperature hovered around 100 degrees in the summer. "Not even the dogs go out," he said. "Everybody takes a siesta from 12 to four o'clock."

Father Sullivan remembers his first homily there. "I was saying Mass, and I tried to say, 'Go in the peace of Christ without fear (miedo), but instead I said without husband (marido), he explained laughing. "Some of the women went, 'Yeah!' and got a big kick out of that. The people told me I speak with my heart. I fell in love with them quickly, and they fell in love with me.

Father Sullivan spent five years in Las Termas, then was assigned to Yofre Norte, a barrio of the city of Cordoba where he served for nine years.

Fr. John (kneeling at right front) with fellow La Salette
Missionaries and Laity in Salta, Argentina.

"It is similar to Boston in some ways, but the poverty is much deeper," he said. "Poor people here would be middle class in Argentina." He took the bus to the parish center and served eight communities in the campo. They were so distant that he said Mass once a month in each of them.

His last four years in Argentina were spent in the very poor barrio of José Ignacio Diez. "My house was robbed two or three times," he said. "The taxis were afraid to come into my barrio, but I feel the people kind of protected me."

Father Sullivan received guidance from his spiritual director, a Jesuit in Cordoba. "I would often eat with the Jesuits in the house where Pope Francis lived. I think I ate at the table where he ate in Cordoba."

Back Home Again

After serving in Argentina for 18 years, Father Sullivan decided to come home. "I felt it was time for the native people to serve their own," he said. "I could go back to the U.S., where bilingual priests were needed."

When Pope Francis was elected a year ago, Father Sullivan wrote him in Spanish. “I told him, ‘If you are ever in the U.S., here’s my phone number,” he said.

Leading parallel lives, Pope Francis and Father Sullivan serve the poor. Together they cared for the poor in Argentina, and now Father Sullivan reaches out to our local community while the pope's vision is changing the world. "We have to learn their stories and not judge them," said Father Sullivan. "We're connected. We're all family."


The newly professed La Salette Novitiate class of 1964
in Bloomfield, CT., with Fr. John (back row, 4th from right).

(Reprinted with permission of The Anchor, March 28, 2014, written by Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent, page 5, originally entitled, “In the shadow of Pope Francis: La Salette missionary serves poor in Argentina”.)

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