Knights give McGivney award to Waterbury priest

PLANTSVILLE—Father James Sullivan, rector of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury was honored by the Knights of Columbus with its 44th annual Father Michael J. McGivney Award for advancing the ideals embodied by their founder.

More than 650 people attended the dinner, sponsored by the Connecticut State Council.

State Deputy Steven Bacon presented the award to Father Sullivan and recalled how two years ago Father Sullivan approached him with the idea of having a Mass in honor of Venerable Father McGivney at Holy Land USA in Waterbury, where the priest was born and raised. More than 1100 people attended the Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Leonard Blair.

“What an awesome job,” Bacon said. “What an awesome Mass it was.”

Bacon also praised Father Sullivan and his family members for their “love of Church, parish and the Knights of Columbus.”

In accepting the award, Father Sullivan said, “I’m deeply honored, especially because it is in honor of Father McGivney. We are from the same hometown, and I have had a great admiration for him since I was a child.”

The Father McGivney Award was established in 1975 to honor the ideals of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, recognizing individuals “who throughout their lives have made significant humanitarian, civic and social contributions to their state, church or country.”

Past recipients have included Helen Burland, executive director of St. Catherine Center for Special Needs in Fairfield, Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, Jim Calhoun, UConn men’s basketball coach, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, and Robert McCauley, founder of Americares.

In his remarks, Supreme Advocate John Marrella told the story of a woman who on the day she planned to take her life received a call from Father Sullivan that changed her forever and led to a nationwide ministry to help the homeless.

Donna Finneran was despondent after her twin brother Brian died homeless and alone. Father Sullivan called her to ask permission to have a funeral Mass for him, which was attended by 350 people. It inspired Donna to begin the Brian O’Connell Homeless Project with a network of several hundred volunteers, including members of the Knights of Columbus, who make “Brian Bags,” which contain snacks, water, gift cards and toiletries that are distributed to the homeless.

“Father Jim started with that one corporal work of mercy…and set off a chain reaction of grace that has had effects literally on thousands and thousands of lives far beyond Ansonia and the Valley,” Marrella said.

Calling on the Knights to follow the example of Father Sullivan, he said, “God needs the cooperation of faithful souls who are attentive to his word and Father Jim is one of the souls.” He praised his “constant orientation to God and being faithful in prayer every day…He sets an example for all of us of what it means to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ.”

As a freshman at Providence College, Father Sullivan joined the Knights with the encouragement of his uncle, Father John McMahon, O.P. who was vice president of student affairs. He has been a member for 40 years.

After graduating cum laude with a degree in economics, he joined the Dominican Volunteer Corps and worked in an inner-city school in Washington D.C., where he taught, coached basketball and helped repair a rundown convent, which inspired him with a love for building and restoration work.

When he returned to Connecticut in 1987, he and his brother John established Sullivan Brothers, LLC, a building and contracting business. For the next 25 years, he worked in the construction business.

In 2003, he felt the call from God to become a deacon and was ordained in 2008, serving six years in the Torrington Cluster of Roman Catholic Parishes. In 2012, he entered St. John’s Seminary in Boston for two additional years of study and was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Hartford on May 17, 2014. His first assignment was in Torrington as a parochial vicar.

In 2015, he was assigned to Church of the Assumption in Ansonia, where during his three-year tenure he renovated the school’s old auditorium and gymnasium after raising funds through a bike ride to Montreal, Canada.

In August 2018, he coordinated the first Mountaintop Mass at Holy Land USA, honoring Venerable Father McGivney. More than 1100 people gathered at the former religious theme park, known for its 60-foot illuminated cross.

The mountaintop offers a view of the places in Waterbury where Father McGivney was born, baptized, educated and buried for 92 years until his remains were moved to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven, where he began the Knights of Columbus.

This year, Auxiliary Bishop Betancourt will celebrate the Second Annual Mountaintop Mass at Holy Land on April 28, Divine Mercy Sunday. Cosponsored by the Holy Land foundation and the Knights of Columbus, the Mass will be held rain or shine at 3 pm.

Father Sullivan, a Waterbury native, often jokes that he and Father McGivney were neighbors, who lived near each other on the banks of the Naugatuck River…a century apart.

“For me, Father McGivney is a ‘priest’s priest’ because of his holiness of life and his care and concern for those in need,” Father Sullivan said. “As Pope Francis says, ‘Don’t stay in the rectory. Take on the smell of the sheep.’ Don’t wait for people to knock on the door of the rectory; you have to go out into the highways and the byways and invite everyone in, and that is what Father McGivney did. Something about his persona was very attractive, and by cooperating with God’s grace, he motivated men to act charitably for others at a difficult time in the church for immigrants.”

When he graduated from Providence College in 1982, it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Knights. That October, Father McGivney’s remains were moved from Waterbury to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven and Father Sullivan served at the Mass.

He also told the story of finding the cemetery for St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, where Father McGivney served as pastor for six years until he died August 14, 1890, two days after his 38th birthday.

In the cemetery in the woods, there is a circle where seven priests are buried who served at St. Thomas Church. Twenty-two years ago, before he was ordained, Father Sullivan started planting flowers around the graves of the priests where he went to pray.

“I feel these seven priests I went to visit all those days were instrumental in my vocation,” Father Sullivan said. “And I am sure they pray for me.”

Bishop Emeritus Basil Losten of the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Stamford praised Father Sullivan and talked about the importance of staying focused on the Eucharist and Christ at a time when we are embattled by countless distractions in society.

He emphasized, “the mystery and reality that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, is alive on Earth at this moment in you and me.”

Msgr. J. Peter Cullen, state chaplain, offered the benediction and said, “Father Sullivan, thank you for getting the Holy Spirit to work so aggressively tonight and touch all of our hearts, to give us enthusiasm for each other, for our unity, our fraternity and our charity.”