Br. Finian Joseph Paulinus O’Sullivan (1932 – 2018)

Obituary by Br. Edward Egan.

Finian Joseph O’Sullivan was born on the 8th January 1932, the eldest of three children, Kieran and Nuala being his siblings. He preferred to be known as Joe. His father, Sean Francis, came from Cork. He worked for Marconi and was a wireless operator on a ship that called into Liverpool. There he met Anna Josephine O’Gorman from County Down and they married in Our Lady Star of the Sea church in Seaforth. The family home was 1 Pine Grove, Waterloo but they later moved to 30 Dorbett Drive, Great Crosby. Joe’s sister, Nuala, still lives there and she kindly gave the writer much help with describing his early life. His father, a Cork man, was a radio officer on a Merchant Navy ship, Almeida Star, that tragically was torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1941 with the loss of all on board. One can only imagine how devastating this tragic death must have been for Joe’s mother and her young children. Like so many, the victims of war were not only those on the front line but their beloved relatives also. It is particularly poignant that on the day he left home, his father gave Joe a penny and asked him to look after his mum and siblings. Another sad outcome was that although his will had bequeathed his belongings to his wife, the law at the time only recognised ‘blood relatives’ –his children. The case had to go to the High Court costing £80 –a big sum in 1941- before it was resolved in favour of the mother.

Joe was a pious lad and went on his bike to serve daily Mass at St. Peter and Paul’s church, Crosby. He used to cycle a lot and was a keen bird watcher on the pleasant country coastline of the River Mersey which extends from the Liverpool docks northwards to Southport.

Joe attended the nearby St. Mary’s College and was inspired to join the Christian Brothers, entering the Brothers’ Juniorate, St. Joseph’s, Ledsham, Cheshire in 1945. Br. Delaney was the principal of St. Mary’s and he was big-minded enough to say to Joe that he should think of earning a living at the age of fifteen to support his mother but if he chose to go, he should not flinch at changing his mind later if he thought better. Joe’s Mum was also generous and broad minded. She left it to Joe to decide to join the Brothers but also said he should not be afraid to change his mind later. Although Joe kept his hand to the plough and persevered unto death in the Brothers, he kept a warm and loving relationship with his family, spending holidays with them and sending gifts for birthdays.

His niece, Una, describes how Joe stayed involved in his family’s life all his life. He visited the family home and joined them for trips on their canal boat. Her father, Kieran, a doctor, enjoyed many a long debate on the boat with a gin and tonic in hand. There were traditional late night conversations into the small hours, ‘putting the world to rights’, although it seemed to revert to the same state the following day! Joe was thoughtful, kind, interesting and funny. He never missed a birthday for any nieces, nephews, or grandnieces and grandnephews. Una finds a ‘Joe shaped gap in her world’ at his passing.

Although Joe’s group received the habit at the Novitiate in nearby Carlett Park, on Christmas Day, 1946, Joe had to wait until on the 10th January following two days after his fifteenth birthday. The novice master was Br. Casimir Allen and Joe took the religious name Paulinus although he preferred to be known as Joe throughout most of his life.

Br. Augustine Anthony gives us a glimpse of Joe at this time: On the conclusion of his novitiate, he returned to Ledsham for studies under the direction of Br. De Sales Goulding. His novice master had been Br. Casimir Allen, one of whose maxims was, “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you”. With the departure of Joe’s fellow novices after their first profession of vows on the 8th September 1947, he automatically became senior novice for the next group and proved himself an effective leader for the newcomers – firm, kind and genial as he would be for the rest of his life.

When Christmas Day came in 1948, Joe was eligible to make first profession of vows but the ceremony was delayed on account of a change in the date for the newly founded English Province. This was the 31st July, feast of St. Ignatius Loyola and it fitted in with the scholastic year in England so Joe had to wait until 1949 for his first vows. Meanwhile he was sent on his first teaching mission in November to St. Ambrose College, Altrincham, where he joined his former novice master again as they both taught in the Preparatory Department. This assignment lasted until September 1949 when he was transferred to St. Joseph’s College, Stoke-on-Trent.

Not much is known of Joe’s time in Stoke and he was transferred to Bristol to do a BA university degree in Geography, History and English. Joe was to teach Geography for most of his life in school. Joe was teaching in St. Anselm’s College, Birkenhead for a year and a half. During this time Joe made his final vows in Marino, Dublin in 1957 and Br. Andrew Rock recalls his refusing to give a speech as senior Brother of the English Province group as he did not think it wise to emphasise that the English Province was technically more senior to the two Irish Provinces since they had become provinces later than the English Province after dividing in the 1950s.

However, Joe was needed for a very busy post in St. Joseph’s College, Blackpool. He was not only senior Geography master but also in charge of Games and senior housemaster in the Boarding department. Joe was even seen erecting rugby posts with the help of other Brothers in an age of cost-cutting and little emphasis on health and safety! Joe was in Blackpool from 1958 to 1964. It is no wonder that Joe made known his feelings about the heavy burden of caring for boarders while having a full teaching role. However, the Brothers only finally abandoned boarding schools in the 1990s.

One of his former boarders is Mr Tony Shaw who now lives in New Zealand. He wrote of Joe with affection remembering his nickname, Gilbert (presumably after Gilbert and Sullivan). Tony says he was a firm but fair disciplinarian. He humorously recalls his last night as a boarder when he told Joe he would not get up for Mass. However, Joe tipped him out of bed and asked him what had he said the previous night. They both smiled at one another and that was the last sight Tony had of him. Mr Ray Wood , another former boarder and member of several athletic and rugby sides, recalls Joe as an excellent teacher and sports master. He had fond memories of the Geography field trips led by Joe.

In 1964, Joe was appointed to be superior of St. Joseph’s College, Ledsham. This showed how highly esteemed Joe was by the province leaders. Being superior of Ledsham showed not just confidence in his ability to shepherd postulants through their school studies but to prepare them for a sincere dedication to formation in the Religious Life. However, Joe was only two years into this noble task when he was needed for the demanding role as leader of the community in Gibraltar and headmaster of Sacred Heart Grammar School. Joe had pleaded for allowing postulants an annual summer holiday against those more conservative voices who were afraid that the young teenagers might lose their vocation by being ‘in the world’ each summer. The more enlightened policy was to prevail in later years.

However, Gibraltar was not Joe’s ‘cup of tea’. At the time he went out to ‘The Rock’, General Franco of Spain had closed the frontier in retaliation for being insulted by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. This meant that the inhabitants of the three and a half square miles of The Rock could not easily find relief and recreation in Spain. This meant that there was a claustrophobic atmosphere on the Rock and this made life more onerous. Br. Chris Brown was in Joe’s community at that time: Joe was a man of few words. He had a lively sense of humour and enjoyed using it. He was a hard worker and expected others to be the same. His humanity shone through in Gib where he loved holiday times. He could not wait to get away from Gib and counted the days remaining on his calendar- but he never complained. He felt restrained and trapped on the Rock. He was big-hearted and encouraged others to face up to the reality. He was known for speaking his mind and on one occasion I remember his describing a particular person as ‘One- he is stupid and Two- he’s a prat’. Joe would keep a straight face while those around would be holding in the laughter. Joe was always thankful for any help you could give him. He was a true warrior’.

After his ‘purgatory’ in Gibraltar, Joe was transferred to Bristol as sub-superior for a year in 1972. In 1973, Joe was made bursar in Sunderland and deputy headmaster the following year. Joe was to be in Sunderland for the next thirty-three years, a place and mission that he really loved. Not only was he more settled in school and community in a very English setting compared to Gibraltar but he had the beautiful countryside of Northumbria and North Yorkshire for outings of fresh air and exercise. Br. Andrew Rock says he did a lot of hill-walking, sometimes with pupils and occasionally with other Brothers. He always had it well organised- where to park cars and what route to take in order to return at a reasonable time.

Mr Tony McCourt, the headmaster of St. Aidan’s after Joe’s retirement from teaching, had the following tribute to Joe: Bro Joe came to Sunderland in 1973 to take on the role of deputy head. The school in the previous three years had changed from grammar to comprehensive but had also experienced some unplanned changes in senior leadership. Bro Joe arrived to provide the stability and resoluteness that was needed to ensure confidence and dependability in the measures taken to meet the many challenges presented by an increasing school population, the assimilation of new staff members and developing accommodation issues.

Very soon into his time at St. Aidan’s Bro Joe acquired the ability to bi-locate! The collapse of a school building necessitated seeking new premises for over 400 pupils. Eventually an empty school, over 2 miles distant from St. Aidan’s, was identified as the best solution. Bro Joe became the leader of the lower school, overseeing all the arrangements for the move and organising and monitoring the daily routine over the next 4 years. He travelled daily to the main school to maintain his teaching commitment to GSCE and A level pupils.

Bro Joe was renowned for his ability to get down to basics and to offer practical solutions to complex issues. He did not like pretentious language or jargon. He wanted to understand issues without the need to wade through contrived expression or conceited terminology.

Bro Joe was famous for his lists. His daily tasks were committed to a sheet of re-cycled paper and ticked off as they were accomplished. His office desk top was empty when he arrived in the morning and when he left in the evening. On one occasion his office was broken into from the outside window- the only evidence of forced entry was the broken glass. The adjacent office was occupied by the other deputy head and the room was filled with mounds of paper and items scattered around the floor and furniture. When the police arrived to investigate the burglary, they glanced into Bro Joe’s and then proceeded to express consternation at the mess created in the other office –assuming that office and not Bro Joe’s had been the scene of the break in.

I enjoyed the benefit of a lot of support and advice from Bro Joe. When I became head teacher he had already retired and was living in Brookfield, the Brothers’ house. He would make regular (often daily) visits to the school. He was always willing to spend time to talk about my family and also to offer an ear when I wanted to share concerns with him in confidence about school life. His wisdom, integrity, loyalty and clarity of thought gained him the love and respect of a wide range of people. When Bro Joe’s death was announced, the instinctive response from his many colleagues and friends in Sunderland was ‘what a lovely man’. This simple accolade is a fitting tribute to Joe who, while living out his vocation, gave so much and expected nothing in return. May he rest in peace.

Margaret, wife of Dennis Roddy, gave the following tribute for Joe: ‘I joined St. Aidan’s at the point where it amalgamated with secondary schools and became a comprehensive school. The large intake meant taking over some old school buildings- Havelock- and commuting between the two school sites. Joe took over the running of the Havelock site for the younger boys. He kept things running smoothly- only the cover list seemed to bother him – there was some muttering among the staff.

Additional buildings eventually meant that Havelock was no more and Joe moved back to the main school site. Here he had his office opposite my dad’s, Mick White. The two of them got on so well. Br. Ned Ryan was headmaster and with his office between them they made quite a trio!

Joe always knew a lot about the boys and was very shrewd and busy. He ran the 384 club for fundraising for the school. When things got tough, he would go off for a good long walk.

I married Dennis Roddy and left St. Aidan’s. Dennis continued to work with Joe and our links continued. The Roddy family benefited from Joe’s care. Not just Joe, but Ned and Br. Livingstone were all people who knew our family well. Very often we had medical problems with Katie, our daughter, and Joe was always quick to ensure that we could cover her hospital stays. We had cause to be most grateful to him.

Mrs Veronica Foster was a teacher in St. Aidan’s who found Joe a very supportive ‘boss’ when she was head of year in the Briary building. She and her husband, Jack, loved walking and invited Joe to join their group. Joe loved Keswick in the Lake District as a place to relax from work commitments. Ronnie and friends were always welcome in the Brothers’ house. They sent their love and prayers.
Michael Thornhill, a former Brother who has kept a warm and close relationship to the Brothers for many decades, says the following about Joe:

I first met Joe when I was a postulant in Ledsham. It was 1948 and a group of scholastics from nearby Carlett Park, including Joe, visited us in the postulancy. He was known then as Brother Paulinus. As the years went by I met him many times at various Brothers’ gatherings including in holiday time. However our real relationship began in 1973 when I was appointed community leader in Sunderland. During the next five years we worked very closely together. Joe was sub-superior and bursar.

Joe was a wonderful companion. He had a great sense of humour and was a rock of common sense. He was a great person to go to for advice and guidance. His room was very close to mine and it was always very tidy. He once joked to me that if he died there would be no difficulty in clearing up after him. My overall memory of him was his consistency in following the daily routines of Religious life and the school’s timetable. He had simple tastes and was a deeply spiritual man. I do not recall his ever missing a day through illness. There was a brief period in the 1970s when St. Aidan’s School was on two sites. Joe was in charge of the lower school and was an inspiration to us all. He was highly intelligent but also very humble.

One of his great hobbies was walking. Most weekends he explored new areas in county Durham and along the banks of the rivers Wear and Tyne. Later in life when he developed trouble with his knees, he greatly missed the joys of exploring the countryside. He was a great community man and did an awful lot behind the scenes. He loved feast-day gatherings when all of us were relaxed and could have quality time together.

The Brothers of the former English Province valued Joe’s intelligence and wisdom and he was on many committees over the years. Whatever Joe was asked to do, he did well. He gave his all humbly and unostentatiously. Later in life he always kept in touch with me. I met him a few times when his health was failing. He carried the cross with patience and courage. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

The references to Joe’s love of the countryside and walking are reaffirmed by his relatives. His nephew Gerard has the following: Uncle Joe was particularly influential in my younger days. He introduced me to the great outdoors with ascents of Mount Snowdon, Cader Idris and a week walking the middle section of the Pennine Way. I still climb and mountaineer to this day as a result of his introduction. He was also, I recall, a very keen squash player. Another memory I have of Joe is his love of coming to stay with my father and mother, Kieran and Rosemary, for holidays and the enjoyment he got from our canal trips on our family boat Last Achill.

Joe was recognised for his wisdom and ability to work in a team by his being elected to the English Provincial Chapter in 1995. He was elected to be a member of the Provincial Leadership team in 1996 and continued in the succeeding team in 2002 until the English Province was absorbed into the European Province in 2008. This post obliged Joe to motor over the Pennine Chain between Sunderland many times for meetings in Hale Barns, and Joe was not that keen on motoring. He was also averse to flying so could not do overseas visiting such as to West Africa. Br. Michael Halligan was a member of that first team: My experience of Joe came with being with him on the Province Leadership Team from 1996-2002. Joe was kind and considerate and had a great sense of humour. Moreover, he was conscientious and hard-working. When there was a task to be done, he would take up the task to be done and systematically find the answers or get the required information.

Joe liked to be brief and to the point which was one of the features of his approach to life and work. He was efficient and good to be alongside. Joe was quite shy and none too fond of big social gatherings. He was happy to do what needed to be done and then relax and reflect quietly about things. Joe was a very good Brother to be with.

The writer of this necrology is a past pupil of St. Mary’s, Crosby, so I had a special bond with him:
I remember Joe visiting us novices when he and John Sullivan came to Toddington to do a little relief work while the novice master was on holiday in the summer of 1955. They were on holiday from university- Joe from Bristol and John from Cambridge.

I was with Joe for a year in 1961 after three years in Gibraltar and before going to study in London from 1961 to 1965. Joe was a pillar of strength in St. Joseph’s, Blackpool – head of Geography, in charge of sports and senior housemaster of the boarders. We even put up rugby posts with our own hands.

I next lived and worked with Joe in Woodeaves. He had come down after the closure of Sunderland in 2006 and conscientiously brought down a library of books. Unfortunately, less appreciative Brothers dumped many of these in a skip in all weathers!

Joe was an ‘anchor man in community’. He acted as the telephone receptionist and always answered the phone promptly with a friendly but business-like way. As bursar, Joe was meticulous with the house accounts and required receipts for every purchase made. He was keen to keep the ‘pocket-money’ at £100 per month despite inflation! He was scrupulous in doing the shopping for the house, making herculean efforts to get anything on the shopping list – asking whether he had got the right brand and quantity, etc. As age and mobility became more evident, suggestions were made to alleviate Joe’s burdensome task but he seemed keen to keep it. Only later did he relent and Tesco's began to deliver the bulk of household needs.

Joe was a community man in recreation times. He always made sure the pre-prandials were available on Sundays and ‘the cup that cheers’ on Friday quality community nights. He would sit with his gin and tonic (looking innocently like water) encouraging others to ‘drown the creature’ by waddling a bottle of tonic about but without many takers!
Joe eschewed controversial matters. He preferred to talk about the weather or worry about the increased prevalence of murders in the UK in recent years. He seemed a little francophobe and I wondered was he resentful because his father was killed by the Nazi enemy when the Vichy French collaborated during the war; or maybe, as a devout Catholic he was aware of the enmity of the French Enlightenment and Revolution. Although the community copy of the progressive weekly The Tablet was in Joe’s name, I doubt whether he was an avid fan of some of its opinions. Joe’s spiritual life was very solid. He eschewed new forms involving circle dances or breathing smoke over symbols. He favoured the regular Divine Office, especially the simplified Salesian Evening Prayer. He chose solid retreats based on Sacred Scripture such as those offered by Hawkstone Hall Redemptorists. Although he dutifully joined in John Main type centering prayer, he found it difficult to grasp.

Joe had a wonderfully understated sense of humour. He used to say "If anyone wants me, I’m in my room tending towards perfection". He once called a gathering of Brothers ‘The Antiques Road Show’! Even in his late stages of dementia he would respond to gentle jokes from visiting Brothers with a twinkle in his eye.

To sum up: Joe was a solid dutiful Brother of massive commonsense. He was very down-to-earth and quiet and retiring while an endearing community man. He was a model for religious observance – very faithful to Mass and Office. He was also a model of patience in his last years despite painful arthritis and dementia.

Joe’s example was well known to his Province leaders. On the occasion of his Diamond Jubilee in 2005, Br. George Gordon congratulated Joe with these words: God called you into Religious Life and particularly into Brotherhood and you answered the call voluntarily and with great generosity. You have been faithful to that call over the sixty years and God in his turn has been faithful to you. It is a blessed time for you, a time of Jubilee and a time for thanksgiving. I wish to express to you our joy and gratitude for what God has done in and through you and for all you that have achieved during your years as a Christian Brother in the footsteps of Blessed Edmund. I pray that you enjoy many more years among us in good health and happiness.

Joe, I want to avail of this opportunity to express my personal gratitude for your wonderful generosity, kindness and personal support to me – firstly at St. Aidan’s from 1986 to 1996, and secondly as a member of the Province Leadership Team over the past nine years.

On the occasion of Joe’s Seventieth Anniversary in 2015, Br. Edmund Garvey had these words :
I want our first words to be "Thank You" for your years of faithfulness and dedicated service as a Christian Brother. I have always admired your concern for others and your wonderful spirit of hospitality each time I visit Woodeaves. Thank you, Joe, for your years of life and ministry throughout the English Province. Thank you for your prayer, fidelity and service of those years. Thank you also for your service as Bursar, Sub-Superior and Deputy Headmaster. You also served as a member of the English Province Leadership Team. You brought a refreshing honesty and openness to this role and your contribution was always appreciated not least at the Tri-Province meetings. Your loyalty to and belief in the vocation of the Brother was always clear from your many contributions. I have also become aware that you devoted significant time to religious studies and to personal spiritual renewal.

Jesus came that we ‘might have life and have it more abundantly’. I pray that you will continue to experience a deeper growth in the abundance of life which he promised. I know that you will continue to help us and support us in an evolving faithfulness to the charisma of our Founder and the new mission of our Congregation in the Church and the world.

Joe’s health declined quickly in 2018 and he needed the special care of a residential home near Hale Barns – Our Lady of the Vale, Bowden. After two months he died peacefully. There was a large attendance at his Requiem Mass at St. Vincent’s, Altrincham presided over by Canon John Rafferty, who was a spiritual advisor to Joe over his last years. Canon John gave a beautiful homily of which the following extracts are highlighted:

In this helter-skelter world it is good to have the opportunity every now and again to pause for thought and reflect on the life of one who has been a travelling companion for his family, for many a young person, and for his fellow Christian Brothers. As we reflect we might grow in wisdom. After all, in Joe’s lifetime, the world, the Church, the Christian Brothers and their communities, have changed more radically and faster than at any time in history and those who have weathered the changes, and used them for their growth and maturing, have much wisdom to teach us.

It is not everyone who finds happiness, nor their personal vocation. Happiness surely comes from discovering one’s true self, one’s true identity, that inner spirit that makes me who I am and which is enfleshed, embodied in who I am and what I do. There was a noble simplicity in Joe, he was a man comfortable in his own skin, a man without guile, a man who simply and faithfully did what he did because it was his nature to do it. It was what he was born to do. Happy indeed are those who live contentedly with themselves because they are able to live contentedly in community, they are a force for good and harmony amongst the brethren and a gentle teacher of the young. I am sure the Brothers and many pupils have been able to thank Joe for having discovered his true vocation.

I only came to know Joe in the latter years of his life but we spent many an hour reflecting on our different vocations in an ever changing world and Church. But much more deeply, it was the changing image of God that interested Joe and the opportunity for a more intimate relationship with the God of love and compassion. Born into a family of faith and being surrounded all his life by people of faith did not mean that Joe took that faith for granted. Faith in God is faith in life, in the people we live with and work with, in the world we live in. That faith is constantly being tested by the muddled reality of them all and it is then that our faithfulness is challenged and we must dig deeper to remain constant.

Faithfulness is a quality of God, who must weep at the shattering of his dreams for his creation. It is born out of a love described in our first reading -1 Cor. 13:1-8. There is nothing pious or sentimental about such a love, it is the mystery that lies at the heart of every human being and makes them human and the mystery at the heart of God which makes God, ‘God’. In discovering the one we find the Other and it was this continual search and discovery that made Joe the kindly, gentle and faithful soul we knew him to be.

We now thank God for his life and pray that good and faithful Brother Joe knows the joy of the encounter with the good and faithful God for whom he searched.

Br. George Gordon gave a lovely homily describing Joe’s life in the form of pictures from a family album, reminding us of stories, achievements, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. He mentioned the 34 happy years in Sunderland and the many friends he had made there who admired him and were very grateful for his many generous gestures and favours. He emphasised Joe’s special sense of duty and hard work. He quoted a Bother from Dublin who said: Joe brought to his leadership roles a freshness and a no-nonsense approach. His welcome and hospitality was always fulsome.

Another Brother said: He remained ‘fully alive as a Christian Brother’ right up to his final illness. He always wanted to pull his weight and contribute to the community as best he could. He was a true Christian Brother and gave his all in the service of the schools in which he served. He will be fondly remembered and missed. George finished his eulogy with this inspiring piece from the English mystic and visionary Caryll Houselander:

‘Everything falls away from us even memories – even the weariness of self. This is the breaking of the bread, the supreme moment in the prayer of the body, the end of the liturgy of our mortal lives when we are broken for and in the communion of Christ’s love to the whole world. But it is not the end of the prayer of the body. To that there is no end. Our dust continues to pay homage to God. Amen’.

Many of Joe’s relatives and friends honoured him with their presence at the Requiem Mass and at his burial in Dunham Lawn Cemetery -the resting place of many Brothers of the old English Province. May his soul rest in peace after a life of devoted work in the Lord’s Vineyard.

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