SENECA, SOUTH CAROLINA —
Graham begin process, seeking exhumation of Sullivan's remains
An inquiry has begun about how to go about exhuming the remains of Father Thomas from his grave in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
Jim Graham has been in contact with a pair of Boston attorneys to figure how this might be done so he can obtain a DNA sample for a paternity test.
Graham has long contended that Father Sullivan, a priest with the Oblate order assigned to Buffalo in the mid-1940’s, is his biological father. That assertion is accepted as fact by a number of Graham family members, but Graham so far only has a circumstantial case to establish it.
He has collected an impressive pile of old documents. Together that strongly suggest Sullivan may be his father. But now, Graham would like certainty in hopes of getting something from the Catholic Church that he’s wanted for many years, an admission that Sullivan fathered him.
Graham has also made contact with local officials on the health board in the town of Tewskbury, Massachusetts. It’s there were father Sullivan’s grave is at the Oblate Fathers cemetery. State law places jurisdiction with local government when it comes to matters of exhuming bodies.
A possible hurdle for Graham is the Oblate order. It is not known whether they would seek to block Graham’s exhumation request. 2 On-Your-Side did pose the question to the leader of the Oblates in the US, Father Louis Studer.
A spokesman for Father Studer left this voicemail on Saturday, “The best I can tell you is that Father Studer will be making no public statement about the proposed exhumation and will have no further comment on this matter.”
2 On-Your-Side also spoke with the director of the Tewksbury Health Department, Susan Sawyer, who said she was not sure whether her office had an established procedure for exhumation.
Jim Graham had hit a dead-end.
For 25-years, he’d been working on his own genealogy. The project began with a secret revealed to him in 1993 by an aunt and uncle.
Graham was told his biological father may be a priest. All he had to start reassembling the puzzle that was now his life was a faded newspaper obit of Father Thomas Sullivan.
So, he went to work.
Graham unearthed documents of his mother, Helen, running off to New York City with him as an infant. More papers surfaced showing how Helen’s husband, John Graham had employed private detectives to track her down. Still more documents show how Father Sullivan was banished to northern New York for years.
It is an impressive collection, but it is just a circumstantial paternity case. No direct evidence.
Graham turned to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Could the Cardinal push the Oblate Order in the US to recognize Graham was the child of one of their priests?
The American leader of the Oblates, Father Louis Studer refused citing insufficient evidence.
Graham says in a phone call, Studer seemed almost amused that Graham could be so persistent without more proof.
“He was almost laughing,” described Graham.
That’s when he decided to ask for an exhumation of Father Sullivan’s remains.
In February, Graham wrote Studer a letter making a formal request. It reads in part, “With your permission, we can bring closure to my 25-year quest for the truth with just a DNA sample.”
In a return letter, a surprising answer: permission granted.
“(T)he Oblates do not intend to oppose your proposal to exhume the remains of Father Sullivan for the purposes of DNA analysis.”
There are conditions. Graham must pay for the exhumation and the testing. He’s also responsible for returning the cemetery grounds to their original condition. All necessary state and local government permits must be obtained.
Graham has been at work on arrangements. In a Skype conversation this morning, he did not mention if he had picked a day yet.
“I didn’t think they would come back and give me approval. I thought for sure they would turn me down. It was totally a surprise,” said Graham.
From his home in Seneca, South Carolina, has been chasing down the requirements including finding a company that will conduct the DNA comparisons. It’s kept the semi-retired Graham pretty busy.
“I’m gonna see this thing through to the end no matter what I have to do,” says Graham.
Then, after a brief pause, he continued, “I think it hit me pretty hard that we’d be doing it."
The Day After Fathers Day
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.”
DNA proves deceased priest fathered Jim Graham
It was the first day of classes at Anna Maria College. It’s a small Catholic school in the hills of central Massachusetts.
It’s here Jim Graham came to learn some test results.
Two months earlier, he sat near the grave of Father Thomas Sullivan to watch the exhumation of the remains of an Oblate order priest. Graham had gotten unprecedented permission to dig up Sullivan’s body to obtain tissue samples for a DNA paternity test.
For a quarter century, Graham has spent thousands of dollars and untolled hours gathering documents which tell a convincing story, that the priest Graham never met is his biological father. But all of the evidence is admittedly circumstantial which bothered Graham.
“When I tell my story, there’s always some hesitation because we didn’t have it validated. Some people could question if he was really my father,” he explained.
DNA testing could erase all doubt. So, tissue samples from Father Sullivan and a swab of Graham’s inner cheek were sent to Bode Cellmark Forensics in Lorton, Virginia.
The results were sent to Dr. Ann Marie Mires, a forensic examiner and teacher at the college. She was the person who climbed into Sullivan’s grave to collect the tissue samples.
In the basement of the college library, Dr. Mires sat down with Graham to explain the paternity test outcome with reporters and cameras watching.
Mires began, “You’ve driven all the way from South Carolina to find out whether Father Thomas Sullivan is your father, and I’m here to tell you that he is.”
The normally poker-faced Graham holds back tears and then leans forward to embrace Dr. Mires.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hugged a doctor before. Thank you,” says Graham.
Over the next several minutes, Mires explains the science. Based on the results, the certainty of Father Sullivan being Graham’s parent is 99.99999%.
“This is basically irrefutable,” says Mires.
Graham has it, proof in the form of scientific certainty. He says it’s for others because in his heart he’s known the truth for 25 years.
“The Catholic Church all along, they knew who I am and they all know I’m his son. I look just like him so it’s, it’s bitter-sweet.”
As Graham continues, he struggles to contain his emotions, “It’s not really the…”
He swallows hard a couple of times and continues, “…ending I was looking for because I didn’t think we’d have to go through what we’re going through. My father’s speaking today to all of us through his D-N-A.”
The DNA test results may speak loudest to Father Louis Studer, leader of the Oblate Order in the US.
Studer has previously refused to concede Sullivan fathered Graham. In fact, Graham says in a phone call earlier this year, Studer told him it was an allegation without proof.
Now, with proof in hand, will Graham again ask Father Studer to publicly admit one of its priests is Graham’s father?
He dismisses the idea, “No. He’s gonna read about it. I don’t think I have to go back to him. He’s not an individual I really look forward to talking to again.”
Instead, Graham plans to write a book about his search for answers and proof about who is father really was and the obstacles he says Catholic priests and officials erected along the way. And he hopes his story will inspire other children of priests to seek answers about who their fathers are.
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