Politician, priest, publisher, author... Fr. Sean O'Sullivan packed a lot into his 37 years. Photo from Register files

My second chance with Fr. Sean

By  Tim Wharnsby, Catholic Register Special
  • October 18, 2017
There is something magical, even powerful, about a second chance.

In the fall of 1986, I wasn’t looking for a second chance to get to know Fr. Sean O’Sullivan. I simply missed the third day of classes in my first year at Ryerson Journalism because I unwisely scheduled the second of my bi-annual visits to my asthma specialist, Dr. John Toogood (yes he was too good), in London, Ont.


I returned the following day to discover the beats for the School of Journalism newspaper were handed out on the day I missed. The only focus remaining was the religion beat.

I wanted to cover sports. But I thought back then, “how difficult could this be?” I was Catholic. I was a former altar boy. And Church St. ran through the Ryerson campus.

My first stop a few days later was Sunday morning Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral. After the service I picked up The Catholic Register to discover the publisher was Fr. Sean O’Sullivan. 

This had to be the same Sean O’Sullivan, I thought to myself, who spent a summer as a deacon in the late 1970s at our parish in Waterloo, Ont. Seeing his name in the newspaper, and remembering him at our parish, I could not have imagined he had only three more years to live.   

Fr. Sean, or Deacon Sean as he was known back then, arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes without fanfare. He immediately made an impact. He was thoughtful, a good listener, enthusiastic, yet calm. He liked to talk about sports and mix in politics. He was too good to be true.

But his past was unknown to most of us. Even our popular parish priest, Fr. Gus Smith, kept Sean’s previous life in politics a secret. They were from the same hometown, Hamilton.

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1981, when Deacon Sean was ordained to become Fr. Sean, that I realized how big a deal he was. Within a year he was the director for vocations for the archdiocese and, at 31, was the genius poster boy behind the Toronto archdiocese’s “Dare to be a Priest Like Me” campaign.

You probably remember the 38 black-and-white billboards that dotted the Toronto landscape with the message and a picture of Jesus on the cross.

Fr. Sean had taken an interesting road to the priesthood and he was persuaded to tell that story in order to beef up the declining number of young men entering the priesthood. Through this controversial campaign, we learned all about his unique story.

Hamilton MP and cabinet minister Ellen Fairclough had introduced him to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker when he was 11 years old. By the time O’Sullivan was 18, he was running the Ontario Young Progressive Conservatives and, a year later, in 1971, Diefenbaker, now the opposition leader, named O’Sullivan his executive assistant.

In the ’72 federal election, O’Sullivan became the youngest MP in Canadian political history at age 20 (that record has since been beaten), winning the Hamilton-Wentworth riding. He won again in 1974. 

A year later, Toronto Sun reporter Mark Bonokoski unearthed a story about a New York State senator who was trying to make the beaver the state symbol. O’Sullivan took up the cause. Like Bonokoski, O’Sullivan felt the beaver should be Canada’s official symbol of our country. CBC personality Barbara Frum jumped on board to help the cause and the beaver held national prominence in 1975 after O’Sullivan’s successful private member’s bill.

He appeared destined to become a future Progressive Conservative leader, maybe even follow Diefenbaker into the PM’s office one day. But O’Sullivan shocked political pundits and others when he decided to leave politics for the priesthood in 1977.

I remember him telling me that he lost his “zeal” (Sean loved that word) for politics when the person he backed, Paul Hellyer, finished a distant fifth in the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership vote.

He actually began to investigate the priesthood before his end in politics. O’Sullivan always was intrigued about his faith and why young adults would enter the priesthood. He explored this curiosity and soon Diefenbaker was replaced as O’Sullivan’s mentor by Fr. Joseph Lupo. He was a Baltimore-based priest who in the 1970s created an advertising campaign in publications like Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek and even Playboy to entice young men to consider the priesthood.

O’Sullivan prayed for guidance on what he should do. He attended several retreats and discussed his possible move with many people. He decided to become a priest.

When he informed his parents, his father said, “What took you so long?”

After his studies in Rome, his summers at different parishes in Southern Ontario and his early days as a priest, trying to follow in Lupo’s footsteps in trying to entice young men to consider the priesthood, O’Sullivan took on his greatest battle. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1983.

O’Sullivan thought he had the flu, but a friend of his, Dr. Greg De Marchi, convinced Fr. Sean to go to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton and get checked out. His worst fears were confirmed.

O’Sullivan was told his only chance of remission was chemotherapy. Without treatment, he would be dead in six weeks. If he underwent chemotherapy, he had a 60 per cent chance the dreaded disease would go into remission.

O’Sullivan fought hard, just like he did with every challenge he faced in life. He persevered and resumed his new life as a priest.

When I reunited with him in 1986, his best-selling book Both My Houses: From Politics to Priesthood had been released earlier that year and he had become publisher of The Catholic Register. He was more than happy to help me as willing subject for a feature story on him.

Back then, people often confused Fr. Sean and Canadian Olympic boxer Shawn O’Sullivan. He told me, “For your story, tell them I’m not the boxer, I’m the fighter.” It was a perfect way to tell his tale.

Even after I wrote my feature story on him for The Ryersonian and completed my time on the religion beat, Fr. Sean and I would occasionally meet in his office, eat a submarine sandwich for lunch and discuss life.

I was so saddened when that dreaded leukemia returned. He passed away on March 9, 1989 at age 37.

Fr. Sean would be 65 if he was alive today. He packed so much into his time on Earth. All these years later I’m still thankful I had a second chance to get to know him.

(Wharnsby is a writer in Toronto, contributing twice weekly to cbc.ca/sports.)

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