The father is confirmed.
A Buffalo, New York, native's 25-year struggle for the recognition he knew in his heart ended in Paxton, Massachusetts, Tuesday afternoon when a DNA test confirmed that his father is a now-deceased priest born in Lowell and buried in Tewksbury.
Jim Graham learned that Father Thomas Sullivan is, with near certainty, his biological father. He called, prodded, dug, and finally won permission to exhume Father Sullivan's body to retrieve samples for the DNA test.
The results potentially open the door to thousands of other men and women around the world to press their claim against the Catholic Church that their fathers are priests.
Rather than hear the results over the phone, Graham drove to Anna Maria College in Paxton to hear the news in person.
“You’ve driven all the way from South Carolina to find out whether Father Thomas Sullivan is your father,” said Dr. Ann Marie Mires, the forensic anthropologist who took the DNA samples from Sullivan’s body. “I’m here to tell you that he is.”
Graham’s lip quivered, he smiled and leaned into a hug. “I’ve never hugged a doctor before,” he chuckled. “Thank you.”
Graham said he has been convinced for a quarter century. But finally, confirmation. And relief.
“A bit drained emotionally, but a bit relaxed,” he said.
Amid family rumors, it’s a journey that began at the kitchen table of who he thought were his aunt and uncle as they slid an obituary across the table.
“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.
That day in December 1993 launched the quest. He has questioned the church, gathered orphanage records, hired private detectives.
At the center of it all stood one question: Was Father Sullivan, a priest from Lowell, a graduate of Boston College, buried in Tewksbury, his father?
“When it’s validated, it hit home,” Graham said.
Graham said he doesn’t want compensation or money from the church. Rather, he only wanted validation, recognition, a confession.
“They tried to bury our history and I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he said.
And he never thought it had to come to digging up a body.
“My father is speaking today to all of us through his DNA,” Graham said. “But it was really unnecessary when you think the Catholic church all along, they know who I am.”
Graham believes the church took his real parents from him, all to avoid the scandalous fact that a priest fathered a child with a married woman.
He talked to priests, nuns, bishops, officials of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, asking for verification and recognition. Often, the was just told he can’t prove anything.
“Father Savage who told me forget the injustices of the past,” Graham said, recalling one of the first priests he asked about Sullivan. “That statement drove me to do what we’re doing here today. … 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.”
Now that he has his proof, he hopes his story will serve as a precedent to others whose parentage the church has denied.
“It’ll set a precedent where they can do the same thing if they have to,” he said. “This story will resonate. It will advocate.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Father Tom Coughlin of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Washington, D.C., said he “hopes this enables Graham to achieve the peace of mind he has been searching for so long.”
And they would be happy to talk with him.