'Crucifix stolen': how the missing relic of saintly priest made front-page news

A drawing of Fr John Sullivan, who was held in great affection by ordinary Dubliners

Desmond Gibney

The front page of the 'Irish Press' on April 6, 1970, was a busy mixture of domestic and foreign news: coverage of the funeral due to take place later that day of Garda Dick Fallon, murdered in the course of a bank raid in Dublin three days previously; intrigue in the Kremlin with rumours about the demise of Soviet premier Kosygin; and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the midst of that collection of stories was a 23-word piece headed "Relic stolen".

A visitor to my family's home in Santry might be forgiven for thinking that Fr John Sullivan must be the new curate in our parish, such was my mother's devotion to his cause and her frequent mentions of his name.

In fact, Fr Sullivan, who was born in 1861 to a wealthy and well-connected family (his father became Lord Chancellor of Ireland), was educated in Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and in Trinity College Dublin, and was raised in the Church of Ireland.

He converted to Catholicism in 1896, was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1907 and was renowned for his holiness and his devotion to the sick, until his death in 1933. He was buried in Clongowes Wood College, but was reinterred in a specially built tomb in St Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, in 1960. It became the practice that his relic was borrowed and brought to sick and dying people.

We regularly attended Mass in Gardiner Street and any time some extra help was needed, my mother always called on Fr Sullivan's intercession. His relic, a crucifix, was frequently brought to our home whenever anyone was sick.

I don't remember the first time I visited his shrine in Gardiner Street, but I am told that as an infant I was put sitting on his tomb.

The last time I saw his shrine opened was in February of this year, for the annual Mass for the cause of his beatification.

The next big occasion is tomorrow, when Cardinal Angelo Amato will beatify Fr Sullivan on behalf of Pope Francis. Beatifications of Irish people don't occur too frequently, and this may be the first time such a ceremony will have taken place in Ireland.

Getting back to the stolen relic. Contemporary newspaper accounts reported that detectives were "searching for a middle-aged man who was seen near the presbytery".

Such was the affection of ordinary Dubliners for Fr Sullivan that the story remained in the newspapers throughout the time that it was missing.

On April 11, 1970, the 'Irish Press' printed a letter to the editor from a Maura Tallon, from Dublin 12, who appealed "to the present holder who has thoughtlessly borrowed it 'unofficially', to send it back… he is in a sense hampering the beatification cause of this saintly Dublin priest".

And what was my mother's connection to this theft?

One day, a neighbour arrived in our house and declared that she knew who had stolen the relic.

This certainly caught my mother's attention, because like many others she had been following the developments (or lack of same) in the newspapers.

The neighbour said that the person who stole the relic must have been my mother, because nobody else could have been as familiar with the relic, such was the frequency with which my mother borrowed it. Happily the relic was eventually recovered eight months later, and the 'Irish Press' reported on December 10, 1970 (on the front page, naturally) that it was undamaged.