Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, Advocate for the Poor, Dies at 83
By MARC SANTORA
Published: June 8, 2013
Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, whose work on behalf of the poor and downtrodden for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens earned him national recognition, died on Friday as a result of injuries from a car accident. He was 83.
Bishop Sullivan, who lived in Brooklyn, was critically injured in a three-car collision on the Long Island Expressway on May 30 and was airlifted to Nassau University Medical Center, where he died, according to a statement by the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“We mourn the passing of Bishop Joseph Sullivan,” said Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio, the leader of the diocese. “During his tenure, Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens became a nationally recognized provider of social services. Even in retirement, Bishop Joe continued to serve on many boards for Catholic hospitals and health institutions. He epitomized the best of our church’s teaching and the fundamental option for the poor. He was an outstanding priest.”
In addition to his work with Catholic Charities, Bishop Sullivan played an instrumental role in the formation of St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers and served as chairman of the Social Development and World Peace Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
His work often brought him in touch with the city’s most frail, neglected and impoverished citizens, and for more than five decades he was an advocate on their behalf.
In the late 1980s, as whole neighborhoods were being ravaged by AIDS, drug abuse and crime, Bishop Sullivan went to Washington to testify before Congress about the plight many people were facing.
“In the parishes where we used to have only the old people, where we used to bury the old people,” Bishop Sullivan said, “we’re burying young men.”
Joseph Michael Sullivan was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on March 23, 1930, one of 11 children of Thomas and Margaret Sullivan.
In 1948, after graduating from St. Michael’s Diocesan High School, he spent a season playing minor league baseball with the Americus Phillies in Georgia. In an interview with The New York Times in 1999, Bishop Sullivan recalled traveling across the South in a beaten-up bus. “You played all night ball in the minor leagues, and you’d kind of lounge around most of the rest of the time,” he said, adding: “It was essentially a boring life.”
He returned to New York and enrolled in Manhattan College in the Bronx. He had always felt at home in the church, and in 1950, he transferred to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. He was ordained in 1956.
He was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Queens Village. In the 1999 interview, Bishop Sullivan said that the great turning point in his life occurred three years later when the bishop needed social workers.
“I got a call on a Tuesday night to see him Wednesday morning. And I was registered for graduate school in social work by Thursday morning. I didn’t know what a social worker was.”
He added, however, that it was the “best thing that ever happened to me.”
He received a master’s degree from the Fordham University School of Social Work in 1961 and a master’s in public administration from New York University in 1971.
By 1968, he had become the executive director for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens. Under his leadership, that organization would become the largest Roman Catholic human-services agency in the country, covering America’s fifth-most-populous diocese.
Bishop Sullivan is survived by his sisters Betty, Dolly and Fran, and his brothers John, Peter and Ralph, as well as more than 100 nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. He was predeceased by four other brothers, Gerard, Richard, Thomas and William. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II named him an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Brooklyn, he said his mission was to serve “the hurting people of society.”
In the 1999 interview with The Times, he said he could not imagine a better life. “I really think of this job as heaven on the way to heaven,” he said. “It doesn’t come at the end. It begins here.”