A Look Back at the Life of Deacon Michael Sullivan, 1942-2019


The little chapel at Villa Guadalupe, the nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, was packed for the funeral of Deacon Michael Sullivan on Thursday, February 7, 2019.

Bishop James Wall celebrated the funeral Mass, opening his homily with a reflection on Deacon Sullivan’s service to the Church.

“I had the privilege of knowing him for ten years, my ten years here in the Diocese,” Bishop Wall said. “And if there’s one thing I could always say about Deacon Mike, it’s this: he was always willing to help. He was always willing to assist. No matter what it was that I asked for him to do, he was always willing to do it. Even when it was difficult – at times, physically.”

Bishop Wall said that there could be no greater way to honor Deacon Sullivan than through prayer, especially the greatest prayer of all: the celebration of the Mass.

“I know the last few years, he was unable to do his diaconate duties as he would have liked, but he always had that spirit, that great sense of helping, of assisting wherever he could. And I think the primary reason for that was his great love, his great appreciation for the Mass.”

“We know he was called to vocation as a married person,” Bishop Wall said, acknowledging the contributions of Dolores, Deacon Sullivan’s wife, present at the funeral. “We also know he had a vocation to the diaconate. And in the diaconate a man is called to assist, especially assist at the altar of the Lord, assist at the Mass. So it’s central to the life of a deacon, this love, this appreciation, this deep and intimate prayer with God, connected with the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass.

“And we know that our brother, Deacon Mike, loved the Mass.

“The one who has a great love for the Lord in the Mass will also have a great love for others, in terms of service. And we were able to see that beautifully in the life of Deacon Mike.”

Below is the full transcript of a brief autobiography Deacon Sullivan wrote shortly after entering the diaconate program for the Diocese of Gallup.

My life began on a snowy night in Fort Wayne, Indiana so I have been told. As a blizzard blew across the city on November 29, 1942 at approximately 10:00 p.m. I breathed my first breath. My womb mate followed me 30 minutes later. I was a puny 3 lbs. 1 oz. while my twin weighed in at 6 lbs. 9 oz. You can tell who didn’t miss a meal in the womb. Because of my smallness I had to remain in St. Joseph’s Hospital for 3 more months in an incubator. My twin was able to go home and meet our 18 mos. Old sister. After arriving at home my paternal grandmother rubbed me in goose grease and placed me in a small shoebox with flannel lining to prevent me from getting pneumonia. I have been told that my grandmother’s nurturing and care saved my life dining those first months. Little happened during those first 5 years that I can remember. I do remember the story of my big sister taking our milk bottles from our cribs and draining them. People were concerned that I was not gaining weight. After my sister was caught in the act I quickly increased in weight. My parents provided for ways that big sister could not steal our bottles. A gate between rooms with a bell attached ended her nightly visits to steal our milk.

It seemed that many Irish rituals were in place as we began to develop. There were many things surrounding parish life that I remember. Somehow, as children, we acquired the gift of celebration and all feast days were celebrated with song, food, and drink. The latter would catch up with all three of us many years later. It seems that relatives formed an extended family and met regularly after Sunday church at our house for breakfast since we lived across the street from St. Patrick’s Church and School. Many of the activities of my childhood were colored by the involvement of grandparents, parents, uncles & aunts and their involvement in church. I do remember all the seriousness that was attributed to attending church, no food or drink, and all the pomp surrounding solemn feasts. It was expected that all family members attend dinner at our house after services on solemn feasts. A large chicken dinner with all the fixings around 1:00 p.m.was prepared on Sunday afternoons and Holy days.

As children we loved to have so many family members celebrating at our house. We were expected to be seen but not heard unless our parents called upon us to perform. All events called for piano playing and accordion playing with a sing-a-long of Irish songs. The closing of the day was the daily rosary after every evening meal. This was our cue to sing our night prayers taught to us by our mother. As we grew older this became embarrassing to perform in front of others. I do vividly remember our mischievous side as the three of us discovered in our backroom closet a cold storage area. It was filled with a case of eggs, 50 lbs. of flour and 50 lbs. of sugar with a large container of lard, which was common for baking in those years. It seemed so exciting to crack the eggs and stir them with our tiny fingers so we decided to help with the baking and mix the flour and eggs along with the sugar. But grease was important in baking so we rubbed each other with lard, poured flour on each other and with the egg and sugar mixture we carefully topped ourselves off. Then our mother discovered it was too quiet in the house and looked for us only to discover that her 30 doz. eggs, flour and sugar had become the ingredients for three gingerbread kids and we looked ready for baking. I remember spanking was the result, not baking. Our mother used to say that what one of us didn’t think of the other ones would. Her famous line was: “Wait until you have kids and I hope and pray they will be more mischievous than the three of you”.

Another incident that summer caused us to lose our weekly ice cream treat from the truck that passed through the neighborhood each Saturday. We were in need of a roof for our doghouse so we proceeded to take the asphalt tiles that we could reach from the old lady’s house next door where the

siding was low enough for us to pull it from the house. Shortly after gathering tiles from her house we discarded the tiles on top of the doghouse and discovered a ladder nearby that might lead us somewhere upwards. We propped the ladder next to the house and were able to climb onto a small slanted roof that led to the top of our three-story house. As we scrambled to the peak of the house we heard noises below like the opening and closing of the back door. Apparently, the lady next door had called our mother to report the incident of tiles missing from her house and noticed the three of us scrambling to the top of the house as she was talking to our mother. The old lady kindly told our mother to go out the back door quietly and make her presence known. She was not to yell and alarm us. When we heard the door open we hurriedly scrambled down the roof. Our mother could hear the pitter pattering of three sets of feet heading to the side of the house where we had put the ladder. After climbing down, feeling safe and undiscovered we turned the comer to discover our mother with her hands on her hips – it was

spanking time again. We missed hearing the bells of the ice cream wagon for the entire summer and with the savings had to pay for the tiles to be replaced on our neighbor’s house.

It was nearing the end of summer and time for us to enter first grade. Since we were born in late November we were allowed to enter school at 5 years old since we wouldn’t turn 6 years until after the first of the new year. A big mistake as I look back on our lack of readiness for school at that early age.

School, church, and neighborhood were the center of our lives for the next 8 years of grammar school. In second grade our first encounter with a huge celebration came when we were to make our first communion and confession. There was always a fear of confession and as time passed I certainly never felt forgiven but only alienated since I was always yelled at for my sins of disobedience. We always waited at the end of the block for the old monsignor to pass by from the funeral home to the rectory. We would walk with him from one corner to the next block. One day he confronted us on a cold January afternoon for having our hands in our pockets. We were admonished for sinful impurities by having our hands in our pockets and playing with our private parts. Our older sister couldn’t believe her brothers were being reprimanded as we walked with the Pastor. From then on we avoided walking with him and would cross the street if we saw him coming down the block. It must have affected us because 50 years later my sister asked me if I remembered the incident and it was perfectly clear in my memory after all these years. It wasn’t until years later that I would come to experience forgiveness and the love of God.

I am not sure how much we understood but we were excited about the participation with the smell of new clothes, a big family gathering, and all the serious rules and regulations about fasting, procession, and learning our prayers. I do remember all the talk about how to properly take this sweet Jesus and at the moment of first communion the taste of the wafer was dry and not very sweet at all. Who were they kidding – sweet Jesus. I did realize that something sacred took place and I felt good that my soul was nourished I could now grow as a good Irish, Catholic boy and enjoy the fabulous party and gifts that followed the church services. As always, there was plenty of good food, music, and listening to the stories of the adults.

Around 4th grade the Sisters asked my brother and myself to learn to serve for Mass. We took this task seriously and began to study this strange language to answer our prayers. We practiced for months with genuine support from parents. We even played in our grandmother’s room as we practiced our serving with our sister as the priest. Poor grandmother received Necco wafers for months being our only communicant. She was bedridden and prayed her rosary about 100 times a day for all the neighbors and friends who asked her. We saw her as a saintly old woman and behaved in a sacred way when practicing our rites for learning to serve at the altar.

Finally, we both were ready and passed the tests for saying the words correctly in Latin, learning about our positions at all times during the service, and being super neat and clean whenever called upon to serve.

Well, since we were only 500 feet from the church it seemed that we got to do all the 5 and 6 a.m. Masses – like for the next 4 years. We were reliable and available for any situation like when others couldn’t keep their assignments we were called moments before mass to be there to serve. As a result we developed a relationship with the 5 priests at our parish. Since our grandmother was a saintly women one of the priests would bring daily Communion to her. For the next 4 years we would wait for the priest to come to the house and walk back with him for the school mass that followed.

We were both attracted to the parish priests and enjoyed being of service to our church. We were well indoctrinated by junior high and went on trips to various seminaries to see if we had vocations for the priesthood. In an Irish family it was expected that the oldest would definitely enter the seminary. Thus we were encouraged by priests and sisters in the parish to enter religious life. Our older sister went to the convent from 8th grade. My brother and I entered the seminary one year later.

Up to this point we were inseparable as twins, dressing alike through grade school and choosing friends that were interested in the same things. This seemed to dramatically change upon leaving home and we were now free to choose our own friends according to our likes and tastes as well as dressing in our own choices. At the seminary we were separated from the beginning and it was delightful to begin having different paths. I chose the more studious friends and my brother chose the more athletic friends. He took dangerous steps in breaking the rules and I kept the rules unless it was a simple infraction.

It was time to grow up and being away from home allowed us to forge radically different lifestyles. I embraced the silence of the monastic traditions of the order and enjoyed the liturgical celebrations with all the enthusiasm of feeling at home in the seminary. My brother, faithful to serving mass daily for the priests, did not seriously feel called to a life of strict rules and regulations and study. After his second year he chose to attend the Catholic high school at home, work in the market place, and begin dating. Two years after high school in the city he chose to enter the Marines and be schooled in civil engineering, moving 2500 miles from home. The four years in the Marines gave him a military family to embrace and the control of his hot temper from his officers. We remained close as brothers and very interested in what each one of us was doing. I was very proud of his service in the military and glad that he enjoyed serving his country. On the other hand, he was proud of my service to the church and enjoyed telling others of my progress in my studies to the priesthood.

During my studies at the seminary I was frustrated with all the languages – Latin, French, Spanish, Greek and English Composition. I did not see what value there was in having your text book written in Latin. It caused me to spend more time translating and less time understanding what I was studying. I struggled with study throughout the 6 years but enjoyed the lifestyle, the order of the day, the camaraderie of classmates, and the challenge to serve people. Suddenly after my senior year I shocked my friends saying that I would study for the Order that operated the Seminary. No one was pleased including my parish priests and bishop. The Order was appealing and there was a deep sense of community among the priests. I am uncertain why I made this move only to discover two years later that I was not an acceptable candidate for the Order. It was explained to me that they saw me as lacking the ability to be a teacher, a independent person, not conforming to obtaining permissions and therefore not appropriate for community life. I was well aware that academically I lacked the intellectual ability but I tried to be diligent in my studies. I was disappointed but then the bright side was I would not have to go to the missions in Africa. I never embraced the idea of being a missionary but I loved reading about community members serving in the Congo. So after minor seminary I chose to go to the Catholic College at home and decide in that year what path my vocation would take. After the rigid six years of training it was most freeing to enter the local college and be in control of my own life. Vatican II had just begun and all the old ways were now being challenged and I fell hook, line and sinker for the changes. I remained close to 4 classmates who continued in the seminary

But my life now changed. It seemed that an Irishman did not fit well into an Order that was German/Dutch and the local parish priest encouraged me to take a teaching job in his rural parish as I attended college and studied towards a degree in elementary education.

I really put myself into being a good teacher. With the guidance and support of the teaching sisters I was well trained in the next 2 years to continue in this profession. I dedicated myself completely to being prepared for each class I taught. I also loved to take extra time for students who were struggling in class since I was familiar with the difficulty I had in my studies. My own studies at the college improved greatly and I was enthusiastic, attentive and stimulated by the courses. No more foreign language and textbooks were now written in English. My psychology and philosophy classes made sense especially now that I did not have to translate from Greek or Latin before I could absorb the material. I was always an auditory learner so I listened carefully to all my professors and learning for

the sake of learning was enjoyable.

For the next 12 years I worked in the Catholic schools and loved the challenge of teaching. My relationship with former classmates continued and often they would give retreats with me for our junior high students. These classmates remained loyal friends and participated in family events along with baptizing nieces and nephews and burying my parents as well as the many trips to Notre Dame football games.

There was always a deep interest in me to grow spiritually. I often would visit the monastery at Gethsemani in Kentucky and spend a weekend in living the monastic life with students who were interested in a vocation from the parish. Meeting Fr. Louis (Thomas Merton) and visiting his hermitage

highlighted our trips. After Merton’s death in 1968 a friend, former classmate from grade school who attended the diocesan seminary with us, left the monastery and lived with me as a roommate for two years for re-entry into secular life. We continued to visit at Gethsemani during those two years then our ways parted and I left Indiana for a new beginning.

At this point in my life I wanted the good life – a good paying job and a professional position. I entered the banking industry. It came to pass that several former students had re-located in Washington, D.C. for nursing training. I went to visit these former students and fell in love with the capital city. I returned 2 weeks later and walked the city to find employment. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a position as entry level teller in a branch bank. I applied and was hired. It was delightful to walk to work downtown in Washington and spend evenings and weekends discovering our nation’s capital. I also discovered that several former grade school students who had entered convents while I was at the seminary had located in the Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia area. It was like a reunion of old friends and weekends were now devoted to visiting one another and sharing our lives from childhood. We had all grown up in the same hometown, went to the same grade school, entered religious life and now were searching for meaning in our lives.

For the next 3 years a loose community formed and we supported one another in our trials and struggles. After becoming assistant branch manager of a new office in Bowie, Maryland I enjoyed living a life that was dedicated to my selfishness. I continued to have the urge to do something for others so I visited some friends who were international students for one year and had worked with me in Indiana in running a group home for delinquents. We met in Washington D.C. for a small reunion before their departure to return to Germany. One student talked convincingly of his work with a rural community in Virginia that worked with mentally disabled adults in a cottage industry village in Crozet. I was so moved by his description of his work in this village that I asked him if I could visit him in Crozet before he returned to Germany. Two weeks later I drove to Innisfree Community and visited his group home at the base of the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains next to Walden’s Mountain. For this experience I was totally unprepared. I had never encountered handicapped persons and this initial visit thrilled me.

There was a woodshop, weavery, bakery, greenhouse, 500 acres of beautiful ranchland with livestock. The 5 homes were only 2 -3 years old as well as the cottage industry buildings. I couldn’t wait to sign up. There was a shortage of staff and they needed houseparent immediately. I gave the bank two weeks notice and arrived at Sunflower House where I was assigned a co-worker with five villagers. The first two weeks were to make or break my desire to live in this rural communal village. It was the first night at dinner that my decision and choice was challenged . The villagers were coming to table for supper and warmly greeting me as they sat down: two boys with Down Syndrome, one older gentleman, and two young ladies.

When I looked up to greet the young ladies I was astounded and shocked at the one young lady’s appearance. It was the most grotesque face I would ever encounter. Her disfigurement was repulsive. I sat directly across from her trying to keep my eyes down but she would continually ask me direct questions which made me look up at her. Her name was Susie and she had a beautiful personality, sweet manners, and affectionate behavior. I could not immediately get over the shock of her appearance and the multiple handicaps that victimized her such as her frequent seizures. Everyone in the house seemed to love her and be so caring. For two weeks I wrestled with the idea of living my life with these villagers. One week turned into 4 weeks and from then on I was in love with some wounded and broken persons who made me feel like family.

From then on I would commit myself to 13 years of working with persons with disabilities only to discover my own handicaps. I continued to work in this community for nearly 2 years. I began to enjoy the simple life, the quiet life, and a more committed spiritual life. Getting back in touch with nature and living the rhythm of a farm community was a real awakening. I had noticed that the spiritual needs of the villagers were neglected. Along with a few other co-workers, we began attending the Catholic university parish, teaching simple bible lessons, and having great sing a long Christian music fests.

As the first year ended I was reunited with a cousin, Sr. Marie Anne, a Providence nun who had spent much of her life working with children with disabilities in the field of music. She visited our community and was delighted with what she saw and witnessed. The visit also re-established our relationship and we shared many years of our past histories with one another. She returned to California refreshed, renewed, and motivated to share her experience with parents whose children were disabled. It was not long after her visit that I received a call from her in California asking if I would be interested in helping develop a program in the Diocese of Orange. There was a large population of handicapped adults who were homebound and needed group homes where they could live independently with co-workers. After much thought and prayer I decided to offer my service and left Innisfree.

For three months I stayed in Houston, TX with my sister and her family and became involved with the Catholic Charismatic Center there. I loved the music. These Charismatics enjoyed singing their praises to the Lord. I also loved the more contemplative prayer-life so I seemed to be inspired by both experiences. After three months I received a call from my cousin and she said that two representatives from the Diocese would like to proceed with making this dream a reality so they flew to Houston to meet me. After the interview they informed me that if a program was to be developed they needed a coordinator and invited me to join them in California to begin laying the ground work. I was also informed that my cousin was in the final stages of cancer and must return to her motherhouse. I traveled to California to begin the initial process of helping coordinate a program. My cousin returned to the motherhouse before my arrival and she called to let me know how delighted she was that I arrived so that a program could be developed within the Diocese.

One month later 10 new board members had volunteered to serve so we celebrated this new beginning with a home Mass. After Mass the Mother Superior called to let me know that my cousin had made her final journey and entered eternal life. I felt that her mission to get me out to California was completed and she was called home the day we celebrated our new beginning. I encouraged board members to just begin, do it and take that leap of faith and expect miracles.

Shortly after the Mass a board member approached me with the suggestion that we start with her home in Newport Beach. She had a son with Down Syndrome and a large home that could accommodate three other persons and a staff person. So, Genesis House was formed along with a non-profit corporation. A second home was opened 6 months later, Providence House. A year later, Trinity House would become our third group home. Samaritan House was opened as a respite house within the same year. We had developed a real sense of community with the four homes and fortunately had attracted excellent staff.

After a meeting with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who were attempting to begin a program, we attended workshops together and helped staff the summer camp and retreats for the disabled. It was here in the mountains of San Bernardino that I met a women who captured my heart, soul and spirit and within two years would become my wife. During this time I realized that my initial dream to have a rural community needed to be investigated.

My wife to be and myself found a 150 acre property 75 north of Los Angeles next door to a Benedictine monastery. Within 6 months we would purchase the property and begin to develop a ranch program for those who had severe behavioral problems and needed space, animals, and the rhythm of a rural life.

At this time in my life I had to face my own dark side and realize my own handicap. My drinking habits were no longer social and I had to come to terms with my addiction to alcohol. My sister had just completed two years of sobriety. My twin brother joined AA 5 years after my entry into the twelve-step program. It was a family disease and now the cycle was broken. With the support of my wife, my friends and our community members I joined AA and began the process of recovery. I now have 16 years of sobriety. This spiritual program has been a real gift and has given me a deep sense of gratitude to God for this gift of sobriety in our family.

Dolores and myself worked on the ranch for nine years. Being able to attend daily mass at the monastery nourished our relationship with God. The monks asked us to help with their mailings and the handicapped persons became more involved with the monastery. Having had difficulties with the State of California licensing until our new home was completed, we lived in sanctuary at the camp area of the grounds at St. Andrew’s. We felt blessed during these nine years, then Dolores and myself asked for a year leave of absence. The Board could not find replacements for us so they chose to close the facility and sell the property. We moved on to Montana for our year together and worked in the State Hospital for the developmentally disabled. It was in Montana that we experienced more spiritual growth.

This Diocese somehow developed an excellent program for spiritual development and it was visible in all the parishes and priests. It was uplifting to attend any service in any parish. Dolores then got a contract in an early intervention program in the schools in Klamath Falls, OR where we spent our next 6 years.

During this time I worked as a manager for a group home. I also was encouraged to start a rural facility by the county. On Eagle’s Wings was born and for three years I enjoyed working with clients in the home, in schools and developing a cottage industry. We got involved with the Diocese as Renew coordinators for the parishes.

It was burn-out time for me so I began cross country driving for the income and solitude. I suffered a heart attack but recovered quickly and continued to drive. Dolores’s mother was aging and had been in a car accident and was beginning to have small strokes. We moved to Parker, AZ to help with her needs.

One summer we traveled to Indiana since my twin brother was in the final stages of cancer. I returned two weeks later for his burial at St. Patrick’s where we grew up. I returned to Arizona and Dolores’s mother had a massive stroke. She entered eternal life two months later.

We then visited Gallup, NM to consider a contract for my wife with M.O.R.E, Inc. and relocated here. I volunteered at Sacred Heart Retreat Center for the next 6 months. Due to cut backs in funding my wife was laid off from her position. We plan to remain here since there are positions in the schools. Hopefully, the caretaker position at the Retreat Center will be an option for me and the beginning of the diaconate formation process.

Michael Sullivan was ordained as a deacon in 2005. He spent the rest of his life in service to Christ and the Diocese of Gallup, assisting at Mass and teaching the sacraments.

May his soul, and the souls of all the dearly departed, rest in peace.


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