The fact that a portion of 71st Street will be named in memory of Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan is testimony that he was a popular figure in the local neighborhood.
For 53 years, he was a weekend assistant at Our Lady of Hope Church, Middle Village. He faithfully celebrated the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass. Because he worked full-time for Catholic Charities, he was never officially assigned to a parish. But he always considered the people of Our Lady of Hope as his parishioners. And they considered him to be one of their parish priests.
Father Sullivan’s tenure with Our Lady of Hope began in 1960 when Mass was still being held in the tent that preceded the church building. He lived at the time at St. Alphonsus rectory in Greenpoint and would travel each Sunday to Middle Village for his Sunday duty.
He got to know many of the parishioners. Occasionally, he would be asked to celebrate a funeral or a wedding. After his ordination as a bishop, he would celebrate the parish Confirmation services.
He was the main celebrant of a memorial Mass for Fire Lieut. Kenneth Phelan when the local son was killed responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Bishop Sullivan also was well known in Catholic circles across the entire country, particularly in the fields of charities, social justice and health care.
He died at the age of 83 on June 7, 2013, eight days after being critically injured in a three-car automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway near Syosset, L.I. He had been immediately airlifted to Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, L.I., but never regained consciousness.
Bishop Sullivan was born on March 23, 1930, one of 11 children of the late Thomas and Margaret Sullivan. He attended St. Ephrem’s School, Dyker Heights; St. Michael’s H.S., Sunset Park; and Manhattan College.
Before entering Manhattan College in 1948, Bishop Sullivan spent a summer pitching for the Americus Phillies of the Georgia-Florida League. Despite his affection for baseball, he once told a reporter that it was “a boring life,” opting instead for higher education and eventually the priesthood.
In 1950, he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, L.I., and was ordained June 2, 1956, by Archbishop Thomas E. Molloy in St. James Pro-Cathedral, Downtown Brooklyn.
After three years as a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, Queens Village, he was assigned to study social work, and in 1961, he earned a master’s degree from the Fordham University School of Social Work. In that same year, he was appointed assistant director of Catholic Charities’ childcare division and four years later was named the director. He also earned a master’s in public administration from New York University.
In 1968, when Bishop Francis J. Mugavero became the diocesan Bishop, he chose Father Sullivan to succeed him as the executive director of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens and appointed him secretary to the ordinary for Charities. He was elected executive vice-president of the board of trustees of Catholic Charities in 1979.
Named Auxiliary Bishop
In the following year, on Oct. 7, 1980, he was one of three Brooklyn priests named auxiliary bishops by Pope John Paul II. The others were the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and Bishop Rene A. Valero, who currently lives at the Bishop Mugavero Residence for retired priests in Douglaston.
Other pastoral work in which he was involved were health care issues and needs, where he played an instrumental role in the formation of St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers, which joined the hospitals and related facilities of the diocese with similar institutions conducted by the New York Sisters of Charity.
Bishop Sullivan served on numerous Church and civic boards concerned with health and human services on the national, state and local levels. These included the chairmanship of the Catholic Medical Center of Brooklyn and Queens and membership on the board of Catholic Charities USA.
Also included in his activities outside the diocese was his service as chairman of the Social Development and World Peace Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In the late 1990s, he chaired an ad hoc committee that produced a pastoral letter on charity – “In All Things Charity: A Pastoral Challenge for the New Millennium” – approved by the U.S. bishops in November, 1999. He said the message was intended “to reclaim the meaning of charity,” which he said had become a pejorative term in modern society.
On Dec. 8, the Catholic Church will begin a one-year celebration of a Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. It’s a celebration at which Bishop Sullivan would have felt very much at home.
Ed Wilkinson is the Editor of The Tablet, the Catholic Church’s diocesan newspaper for Brooklyn and Queens.
Photos courtesy of The Tablet & Catholic Charities
PHOTOS: At a Catholic Charities function, from left, are Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, Mayor Edward I. Koch and Robert Siebel, executive director of Catholic Charities, Brooklyn and Queens.
Father Sullivan, director of Catholic Charities, greets a young girl from child care services.
Bishop Sullivan spent an hour and 15 minutes in the Oval Office with President Clinton, trying to talk him out of signing 1995 welfare reform legislation. Mr. Clinton said he understood. Then he signed the measure anyway.
Father Sullivan with Mayor Bloomberg