“Well done, good and faithful servant.” Jerry O’Sullivan is a retired Legionary and Stanford scholar who grew up on a farm near the village of Rathbarry in West Cork. In 2005 he was bestowed with a knighthood in the Order of St Gregory – the highest honour that the Catholic Church can bestow on a layperson.
It all started when Jerry left Rockwell College and was working in Dublin. He joined the Legion of Mary at the age of 18 and threw himself into working in Keogh Square, a club which helped disadvantaged young boys in trouble with the courts or in need of a job.
Impressed by his ability, the founder of the Legion, Frank Duff, accepted Jerry’s offer to travel abroad and so, at just 21, he embarked on a long journey as a Legion Envoy to South America. It was 1962.
Jerry spent three months in Mexico learning Spanish. Then it was on to Venezuela where he devoted the next six years to promoting the Legion of Mary, travelling thousands of kilometres throughout the country and visiting many of the nearby Caribbean islands.
Despite hardships and some dangers (guerrilla groups inhabited some mountainous regions), the Legion of Mary flourished in Venezuela where it was greeted with open arms and was the foremost apostolic movement at that time.
Following the ideas of Frank Duff, Jerry, while moving around on his travels, would take people with him and then leave them behind to carry on the work. It was a life-enhancing experience for these people, who had been living in a barrio just going to the local bodega (convenience store) and back to buy a kilo of sugar, to have the opportunity to do this work.
With Jerry’s open personality and passionate interest in people, he soon knew everybody. Some of the young men he recruited in to the Legion became seminarians and are the bishops of today.
But for Jerry, none of his work would have been possible without encouraging openness to an ever deeper and more profound spiritual life. This he did at all available opportunities when chatting with people, even those he met casually. He would ask questions but never in a nosy way and without being in any way judgemental – a trait he couldn’t bear.
While Jerry was based in Caracas, three members of Viatores Christi, a missionary offshoot of the Legion, came out from Dublin in 1964 to help him by working in the eastern part of the country. One of these was Freda Coyne, from Crumlin, who was later to become Jerry’s wife.
After six years as Legion Envoy, Jerry decided to study, going first to Mexico, where he did a course in communications and was honoured as the best foreign student. He then received a scholarship to Stanford University in California, where he acquired two Master’s Degrees and a Doctorate in Philosophy.
During his time in Stanford, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference invited him back to work as intermediary between the Church and the government in organising a programme for all non-formal education, which he did, while also lecturing in Communication and the Ethics of Communication in the Catholic University in Caracas.
Jerry’s work in non-formal education – training young people in apprenticeship and employment programmes – was akin to his early days working in Keogh Square.
Similar to Irish FÁS courses, but with a spiritual dimension, the students could learn trades as diverse as hair-cutting or bread-making or they could train as mechanics, etc. These young people could then come off the streets and become bread-winners for their families.
Jerry had high expectations of his young students feeling that if they wanted to get on, to have a full spiritual life, to later be able to serve the nation, they should give of their best. Over 50 years, he set up some 500 training centres and worked with thousands of students.
To each student he strove to offer a lifestyle higher, more noble, and more spiritual than what they were used to.
In the early 90’s, Jerry was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications as liaison man for communications between the Vatican and the Latin-American Church. In this capacity he met Pope John Paul II at least eight times. He was extremely busy but his wife, Freda, and their two daughters Geraldine and Edel, fully supported him.
Jerry was completely surprised and very moved to be awarded the knighthood in the Order of St Gregory in August 2005. It was presented to him by Cardinal Jorge Urosa of Caracas, who, fittingly, is himself a Legion man. Jerry, even in later life, has done his best to truly live up to this award.
Jerry and Freda now live in Cork city since their return to Ireland two years ago after what has been a truly remarkable and fruitful life in Venezuela.