The first and only time I met Uncle Billy I was disappointed. I was hoping he was like Santa Claus. As long as I could remember, my dad and my grandfather told me that I had a great-uncle who was a missionary in Africa who lived in the bush and had a big white beard.
The family called him Uncle Billy, after his birth name William Sullivan, but his friends in Tanzania called him Brother Francis. In 1953, he was in the first group of Holy Ghost missionaries to go to East Africa. Before he died in March at the age 90, he was the last brother.
The last time he came back to the United States was in the mid-1980s. I remember him sitting quietly at the kitchen table in my parent’s house. He wasn’t a big storyteller. We had to ask him questions like, “What do you eat for breakfast everyday?” He grew up on Staten Island, but a loud New Yorker he was not.
He was in his 70s, but he had a serious set of arms. Not overinflated products of the weight room and protein drink. His arms were sculpted by over 40 years of building chapels, seminaries, hospitals, mission houses, schools and roads. If he didn’t get those arms swinging a hammer, he got them behind the wheel of a seven-and-a-half-ton truck crisscrossing the unpaved roads of the bush country without power steering.
As he got older, he was ordered to get smaller trucks until, finally, he was ordered to get a driver. To which he replied, “I get more tired when someone else drives.”
The bigger his truck was the more food he could carry to the starving Maasai — victims of famine and a corrupt government. It was his overwhelming passion. He would spend what little pocket money he had on food for them.
Between Duquesne University and the North American headquarters for the Spiritans (Holy Ghost Fathers), numerous priests from East Africa move through Pittsburgh. Whenever I hear a priest mention that he is from East Africa, I introduce myself as the great-nephew of Brother Francis Sullivan. On many occasions I found myself in a bear hug: “Oh, my friend Brother Francis! He loves the bush. He goes into the bush. He gets sick. We take him back for some rest. He gets better, and then he’s back into the bush.”
It was an honor for him to be allowed to die in the bush.
Building the Church
My family was able to attend the memorial Mass the Spiritans had for him in Pittsburgh. The vain part of me wanted to hear stories about the thousands of Maasai that Brother Francis brought down to the river to be baptized, who then carried him back up to the village on their shoulders like the winning coach in the Super Bowl. I know that is not the way God operates usually.
Instead, Brother Francis built the churches where the converts went to Mass. He built the schools where the Maasai children could learn. He built the hospitals where the sick were treated. He built the houses where the priests lived so that they would be safe and get the rest they needed to carry out their priestly duties. He built the seminary where the men called to the priesthood could receive formation so that they could go out and preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. He literally built the Church.
In all the letters I received from him, I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he was more extraordinary than Santa Claus.
Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on October 4, 2009.