TEWKSBURY, MASSACHUSETTS — It was Monday, the day after Fathers Day. Jim Graham was as ready as he could be to visit the grave site of the man he calls father.
“It’s been such a stressful time to prepare for this, to think about it and to get it organized. I don’t know anybody who’s gone through this before.”
Graham spent months getting ready to exhume the remains of Father Thomas Sullivan, a Catholic priest of the Oblate Order. The grave is in a small cemetery in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
The arrangements included an excavation crew to dig the casket out. A funeral director had to be on hand. A flurry of phones were necessary to make sure all state and local regulations were obeyed, and perhaps most importantly of all, a forensic anthropologist was needed to take tissue samples from the body.
Those samples, Graham hopes, will provide him Father Sullivan’s DNA so that a paternity test can be performed.
Graham wants undisputable proof that Sullivan is his biological father.
He was granted permission in a letter from as assistant to the leader of the Oblate Order in the US, Father Louis Studer.
The letter required Graham pay for the exhumation, which cost him about $10,000. Other stipulations included Graham make sure that no reporters be present and no pictures or video taken of the exhumation. If this requirement was broken, the exhumation would be shut down.
Out of respect for Graham’s quest to get answers about his heritage, 2 On Your Side honored the condition and stayed away from the cemetery that day.
After almost four hours, Graham arrived at a nearby parcel store with Dr. Ann Marie Mires. After some difficulty getting the casket open, Mires was able to get what she described as good samples, likely to produce Sullivan’s DNA.
“We took a plug of the femur. Big toe. We took a finger. And then we took a section of the mandible in the back of the jaw,” said Dr. Mires.
Mires added that “his hands were nicely wrapped around the crucifix and the rosary” that Sullivan was buried with.
Graham’s view at the cemetery was obscured. The contractor unearthing the grave had a policy of not allowing family members to watch exhumations. Instead of fighting or looking for another excavation company, Graham took a seat on a bench at the cemetery about fifty yards away. A blue tarp was strung-up to block his view.
“I mean the whole time I was thinking about what was going on behind that blue tarp,” said Graham.
“I was just thinking about the process and I was thinking that this is kind of the end of the road for this portion of my story because we’re going to get the validation that he is my father.”
For a third of his life, Graham has been chasing down the truth about his own heritage. He was only told by relatives that Sullivan may be his father after the priest died.
That was in 1993.
In the 25-years since, Graham has collected a treasure trove of documents and photographs. He retrieved the crucifix Father Sullivan wore for years. He has also gathered the stories of what Father Sullivan was like, from the people who knew him and were willing to talk.
But Graham has no recollections of his own, and has never spoke with him.
When asked what he would say if he could talk with Father Sullivan, Graham becomes emotional and struggles to say, “We missed a lot the two of us. Didn’t have that opportunity…as father and son.”