October is National Family History Month. Below, learn the story of Jim Graham and how he came to learn that his father was Catholic priest Father Thomas Sullivan.
Jim Graham,73, from South Carolina finally received confirmation this week that Catholic priest Father Thomas Sullivan from New Bedford Massachusetts is his biological father.
Graham’s journey into his paternity kicked off 25 years ago when the people who he believed to be his aunt and uncle shared an obituary with him. At the time, Graham was 48 years old. The man pictured in the obituary looked just like him.
“They said to me, ‘This man may be your father, but we don’t know. Only the principals know and they’re all dead,’” Graham said. Graham’s mother had died the same year, so she was not able to answer any questions either.
From that fateful news in December 1993, Graham’s mission was clear. He embarked on a decade's long journey to determine whether or not Father Sullivan was his biological father. He knocked on doors, followed leads, and asked all the questions he could.
Graham believes the Catholic Church worked to cover up Father Sullivan’s paternity, and he discovered correspondence that backed up his belief. The paternity would have been scandalous for the 1940s Catholic Church: not only did Father Sullivan have an affair with Graham’s mother, but she was also married at the time.
In a series of tweets published prior to the DNA test results, Graham shared what information he was able to piece together.
"WANTED", the UNION ON THE RUN. Not your typical Catholic family in the conservative post war era of 1946. A priest who broke the vow of celibacy. A woman who broke her marriage vows, leaving two daughters and a husband behind. Me, their offspring, a toddler aged 15 months. pic.twitter.com/9wnBTHfbtp— Jim Graham (@jim_jimgraham45) August 21, 2018
Jim's mother Helen and Father Sullivan attempted to run away together to raise baby Jim. Their plans were thwarted, however, and Jim was surrendered to an orphanage in New York City.
I'm thankful I can't recall the day my mother left me with the Sisters of Charity at the Foundling Hospital (orphanage). The emotional pain must have been excruciating for us both. A resident at $2 a day, my mother took me out on Mondays, as my father joined us around the corner. pic.twitter.com/Gf5XlpYYPo— Jim Graham (@jim_jimgraham45) August 30, 2018
During his research, Graham also worked with Coping International, a group based in Ireland that provides support to those who are fathered by members of the clergy. The organization was founded by Vincent Doyle who was also fathered by a priest.
Doyle said that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is avoiding the responsibilities of priests who have fathered children. The Catholic Church in Ireland, however, last year issued a policy that said “the needs of the child should be given first consideration” and that priests who father children have “personal, legal, moral and financial” obligations to that child.
Graham said that during his research, one priest told him to “Forget the injustices of the past,” which only fueled Graham’s search even more.
This year, Graham, now 73 years old, was finally granted permission to exhume Father Thomas Sullivan from his grave in Massachusetts, on the condition that Graham would cover the costs.
Father Thomas Sullivan was exhumed in June, the day before father’s day. It is thought to be the first time a priest has been exhumed in order to trace DNA.
On Tuesday, Dr. Ann Marie Mires, a forensic anthropologist, delivered the long-awaited news to Graham.
“You’ve driven all the way from South Carolina to find out whether Father Thomas Sullivan is your father. I’m here to tell you that he is.”
Graham was overwhelmed, and said afterward he was a “Bit drained emotionally, but relaxed.”
In interviews, Graham made it clear that he did not seek compensation from the Catholic Church for the nearly 70-year cover up, but instead sought acknowledgment and perhaps emotional support.
“All they had to do is acknowledge 25 years ago and say ‘what can we do to help you?’ There’s emotional damage and they never even offered,” said Graham.
Further, he hopes his case sets a precedent for others who may have been fathered by Catholic priests.
Father Tom Coughlin of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the order that Father Sullivan belonged to, said he “hopes this enables Graham to achieve the peace of mind he has been searching for so long.” Father Coughlin indicated that he would be happy to speak with Graham moving forward.
Watch Jim Graham finally learn that Father Thomas Sullivan is indeed his father below:
This month IrishCentral and The Genealogy Event in New York plan to inspire those who are on their journey to unearthing their family’s history and help our readers to reveal their own Irish family’s story and connect ever more deeply with their proud Irish roots.
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What reparations, if any, should the Catholic Church offer to Jim Graham? Share in the comments below.