Bishop Sullivan: a Father Figure
He Was Famous for Ordaining, Recruiting 80 Priests

By Stephen J. Lee
Grand Forks Herald (North Dakota)
June 13, 2006

A newly arrived priest from Madras, India to Fargo in 1997, the Rev. Thaines Arulandu formed a quick impression of his new boss, Bishop James Sullivan.

"He came out and carried my suitcase in," said Arulandu, pastor of St. Stephen's parish in Larimore, N.D. "I was very much taken up by that. You don't see that very often from those who hold hierarchical power. He was a very humble man, a spiritual man, a simple man. He loved his priests and was a brother and a father and a friend."

A quiet but firm spiritual life, an emphasis on the miracle of the Eucharist bread and wine becoming Christ's body and blood and success in recruiting priests when most dioceses were short are things for which Sullivan is remembered.

Bishop in Fargo for 17 years until he retired in 2002, Sullivan, 76, died early Monday from complications of Alzheimer's disease, diocesan officials said.

Born July 23, 1929, in Kalamazoo, Mich., Sullivan was installed as bishop in Fargo May 30, 1985; he retired for health reasons March 18, 2002. Bishop Samuel Aquila, now 55, succeeded him.

"Bishop Sullivan was a man of deep faith in God and commitment to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist," Aquila said. "He was a strong spiritual leader for the Catholic faithful and a loving father figure to the men who served as priests of the Diocese."

A prayer vigil for Sullivan will be at 7 p.m. Friday in the Cathedral of St. Mary's on Broadway in downtown Fargo. The funeral Mass is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Mary's. He will be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in north Fargo.

Sullivan was the sixth bishop in Fargo, following Bishops John Shanley (1889-1909), James O'Reilly (1910-34), Cardinal Aloisius Muench (1935-59), Leo Dworschak (1960-70), and Justin Driscoll (1970-84).

Ordained a priest in 1955 in Lansing, Mich., he was ordained a bishop there in 1972, serving as an auxiliary bishop until he was installed bishop of Fargo.

When Pope John Paul II visited Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, Sullivan was one of the bishops to speak to the youth in English.

In the 1990s, he began a Eucharistic procession from his cathedral in downtown Fargo several blocks to the only abortion clinic in North Dakota.

In August 2001, Aquila was appointed co-adjutor bishop to assist, then succeed, Sullivan, whose health was a concern since he collapsed in December 1997, during a confirmation service in St. Michael's in Grand Forks. Two angioplasties and related emergency surgery soon followed in Altru Hospital, but his health never completely returned. Signs of Alzheimer's began appearing a year or two before his retirement.

Reaching out

Sullivan was famous for the number of priests he ordained or recruited. He ordained 80 men, often five or six each year, and an amazing 12 in one year; those are numbers far above most large U.S. archdioceses.

Arulandu is here because of Sullivan. A veteran priest in India, Arulandu wrote 10 U.S. bishops seeking a parish in America a decade ago. "Bishop Sullivan was the first one to reply and invite me. With love and affection he welcomed me."

The Rev. Jeffrey Wald remembers the first time he met Sullivan, as a senior in college.

"It was Feb. 2, 1986. I've never forgotten it." Recently committed to enter the priesthood, Wald accompanied the bishop to a confirmation service in Grand Forks.

"The bishop, in many ways, changed my life. He had a great love for Christ and the church and just had a great zeal for what he was doing in life," Wald said. "People were inspired by him. It was not so much that he went out recruiting. He went out inspiring."

Critics of Sullivan within the Diocese often those who are liberal or progressive Catholics said he was too dogmatic, too traditional and not open to increasing the roles of women in the church.

Sullivan objected to being labeled a conservative, saying he simply was faithful to the church.

Jack Sharpe, leader of the Bethlehem Community, experienced Sullivan's magnetism. The bishop heard about an unusual group: communal charismatic Baptists in the Portland, Ore., area who had converted to Catholicism and were seeking a new home.

Sullivan invited them to Fargo in 1993, found them a former convent in Warsaw, N.D., to live and work in, loaned them money, and later found them a larger place in Bathgate, N.D. The Bethlehem Community has about 20 members at the former state school for the blind in Bathgate, near Pembina, N.D., from where it publishes Catholic books and handles orders for the large Ignatius Press.

"He was a very unusual bishop from that standpoint that he was willing to give a new group like us a chance," Sharpe said. "We really thought the move out here was part of God's will for our group, and Bishop Sullivan had a significant part to play in that."

Like a father

Wald, a former Grand Forks and Devils Lake priest, invited Sullivan to share the rectory at Holy Spirit parish in Fargo when the bishop retired and has helped care for him since.

"He was like a father to me," Wald said.

In recent months, Sullivan had difficulty talking but always seemed to recognize those he knew, Wald said. "He still reached out to people."

Bishop Victor Balke was bishop in Crookston for years before Sullivan came to Fargo and, being more on the social justice side of Catholicism, often didn't share Sullivan's agendas.

But Balke told a reporter Monday that Sullivan had a good sense of humor while taking his job seriously and said he will remember him for his personal and public spirituality.

"I really admired his strong pro-life stance," Balke said. "He really, really, taught and believed in the sacredness of human life."

Sullivan is credited with helping form the Fargo Catholic Schools network, and a middle school in Fargo was named for him. His Eucharistic procession to the state's only abortion clinic a few blocks from the cathedral each summer begun in the early 1990s was a first-of-its-kind, diocesan officials said.


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