At 34, Sean O’Sullivan has led a more active and intense life than most men twice his age. Involved in politics ever since Prime Minister John Diefenbaker strode into the lobby of what was then the Sheraton Connaught Hotel in Hamilton, Ont., during a campaign stop in 1963 and shook the starry-eyed 11-year-old’s hand, O’Sullivan went on, nine years later, to become the youngest member of Parliament in Canadian history. Then, at 25, with a bright future ahead of him, he left politics for the priesthood-only to discover two years after ordination that he had leukemia. O’Sullivan’s disease is in remission—and he serves as both an associate pastor in Weston, Ont., and as the publisher of The Catholic Register, a national weekly paper. O’Sullivan has chronicled his life in a recently published autobiography, Both My Houses: From Politics to Priesthood. The onetime political warrior, who is sometimes mistaken for Shawn O’Sullivan, the popular Canadian welterweight, declares, “I’m Sean O’Sullivan the fighter, not the boxer.”
The fourth son in a large Irish-Catholic family of six boys and a girl, O’Sullivan was born on New Year’s Day, 1952, in Hamilton. Religion
played a central role in the growing boy’s life—one aunt and a great-aunt were nuns and a great-uncle became archbishop of Kingston, Ont.—as did the dynamics of a close-knit, competitive family. O’Sullivan, a small, sickly
child, found strength in cultivating a sharp mind and a combative outspokenness which later characterized his career in politics. Infused with a precocious idealism that came, he says, from the spirit of the times, he was ready to
be enthralled by the powerful personality of John Diefenbaker. Recalled O’Sullivan: “Diefenbaker had true charisma. I was ripe for finding a hero and he went out of his way to befriend me.” That first encounter between the 11-year-old O’Sullivan and the 67-year-old head of government marked the beginning of a remarkable friendship that spanned a decade and a half.
His initial meeting and subsequent contacts with Diefenbaker pulled the adolescent O’Sullivan into politics. At the tender age of 12, he became an honorary member of Hamilton’s Young Progressive Conservatives (YPCs), thanks to Diefenbaker’s personal intervention. Soon after, at Hamilton’s Bishop Ryan High School, he gained a reputation for political wheeling and dealing that brought him into conflict with school authorities— despite his good marks. Part of that may have been Diefenbaker’s fault: it was not uncommon for O’Sullivan to be called out of class to take long-distance calls from the Chief in the school office. Liberal MP Sheila Copps, O’Sullivan’s former classmate, who lost a closely contested election against him for a school-club presidency, recalls that he was a consummate organizer and strategist. Said Copps: “Sean was always in the thick of things. He was funny, quick, and had an acerbic wit. In those days he always signed FPM after his name—for Future Prime Minister.”
Indeed, it quickly became clear that O’Sullivan’s sights were trained on bigger game than high-school politics. In 1967, at 15, he was the youngest of the 2,250 delegates who attended the Progressive Conservatives’ bitter national leadership convention in Toronto. There, he watched his hero’s demise as Robert Stanfield, backed by thenparty president Dalton Camp, succeeded Diefenbaker as party leader. But O’Sullivan, loyal to Diefenbaker and the former leader’s grassroots values, quickly became immersed in the backroom politics that plagued the party, still suffering from divided loyalties to either Stanfield or the deposed Diefenbaker. In 1970, while he was a student at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., O’Sullivan was elected president of the Ontario YPCs. Said O’Sullivan: “Politics was my blood sport. I thrived on the give-and-take of battle.”
That give-and-take intensified in 1972 when, after an eight-month stint as Diefenbaker’s executive assistant, the 20-year-old O’Sullivan was elected to Parliament as the member for Hamilton-Wentworth. He describes his role during his five years in the House as that of a “political rebel.” But according to Senator Finlay MacDonald, then chief of staff to Robert Stanfield, O’Sullivan was also an extremely conscientious and personable MP who believed that public life was an honorable calling. Said MacDonald: “He was a natural politician.”
Still, in the aftermath of the 1974 election, which returned the former minority Liberal government to power with a majority, O’Sullivan says that he began to question his future. “I thought I had everything I wanted,” he recalled, “but it was not life-fulfilling. It did not offer me peace of heart.” And he also became disillusioned by what he saw as “the hurt caused and endured” in the trenches of politics. During the next few years he met regularly with an old Hamilton friend, Sam Restivo, who was studying for the priesthood at a London, Ont., seminary. Said Restivo: “Sean would find excuses to come down and we would talk.” O’Sullivan considered entering a seminary to determine if the priesthood was indeed his proper calling. And when he finally resigned from the House of Commons for what he calls “the House of the Lord,” perhaps no one was more deeply affected than O’Sullivan’s mentor, Diefenbaker, who
wrote: “I feel a deep sense of personal loss. For me who has looked on you with the pride of a father, Parliament will never be the same.”
In 1980 the former MP graduated from the Irish College in Rome and was ordained a deacon. A year later, he became a priest. “Politics was great training for the priesthood,” O’Sullivan said. “I have never had an original thought in my life, but what I do best is use my understanding on how to reach people. I am also blessed with a network of friends who can make it all happen.” His communication skills were put to the test in 1982 when Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter appointed him director of vocations—in charge of recruiting for the priesthood—for the archdiocese of Toronto. His first major task was the highly controversial—and successful —recruitment campaign that featured billboards across Toronto with the image of an open-eyed Christ nailed to the cross superimposed against the backdrop of a large, impersonal city. The billboards’ message: “Dare to be a priest like me.” More than 1,000 people called to comment on the ads and 500 information packets were sent out.
Then, in April, 1983, shortly after the recruitment campaign had begun, O’Sullivan experienced what he thought was the beginning of a cold.
The next day he sought medical advice. But doctors diagnosed his illness as leukemia—and estimated his chances of surviving for two years as between 10 and 20 per cent. O’Sullivan described the years of sickness and uncertainty that followed as “a terrible roller-coaster ride,” but added: “I don’t begrudge the experience. It taught me about mortality and the simple beauty of being alive. It was a time of rebelief.”
He has now exceeded the medical prognosis by IV2 years, and since June 1, 1986, has been publisher of The Catholic Register, while fulfilling his duties as associate pastor of Transfiguration of Our Lord Church in Weston. Combined with what has been a busy tour schedule to promote his book, those activities continue to threaten the delicate state of his health. But O’Sullivan, living on borrowed time, still seems possessed by what his old friend and former Hamilton mayor Jack MacDonald called “total peace and happiness”—a state of grace he never found in politics. Said MacDonald: “Sean lives with the recognition that you have to make today good because there may not be a tomorrow. He is not fighting a battle anymore, he has won.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.