God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform,” the old hymn says and anyone looking for truth in its message may want to consider the journey of Fr. John Sullivan, a new Greek Orthodox priest in Western Australia, and his wife Deanna, neither of whom knew anything about Orthodoxy until they reached middle-age.
I learned their story because I, or rather my book Eleni, played a supporting role in the conversion of Deanna. But more about that later.
John, of Irish lineage, was baptized Roman Catholic, but at 12 his mother brought him to the Pentecostal church, which he attended intermittently through his youth, his 1987 marriage to Deanna, who was born in Holland and raised a Baptist, and the birth of their three children, two sons and a daughter, over the next five years.
Then in 2011, John's maternal grandmother to whom he was very close died. Seeing the way her Catholic faith sustained her showed him the hollowness of his own devotional life and led him to embark on his own spiritual quest. “But neither the Catholic or the Pentecostal faiths fulfilled me, and I began to explore other religions,” he said.
In a historical novel he was reading he saw references to Orthodoxy and sought out the nearest Greek Orthodox parish, St. Nicholas Church in Bunbury, Australia to find out more about the faith. “I spoke to Fr. Sotirios Vlahopoulos, the parish priest, who asked me if I was Greek, married to a Greek, or had a lot of Greek friends. When I answered no to all his questions, he said it didn't matter and to come to services anyway,” he recalled.
John started attending services at the church and felt the pull of the faith enough to begin formal catechism instruction in it. “But I still was not sure this is where God was leading me, especially since my wife didn't want me to become deeply involved,” he said.
Then on a visit with his wife to the home of their elder son, Jordan, he found the guidance he was seeking. “We were sitting in the front garden and I was telling Deanna I was at a crossroads in my spiritual life, and I didn't know which way to go,” he said. “While we were talking, I was picking up pebbles and softly throwing them a short distance away when I scooped up a small flat stone and saw it was shaped like Western Australia and had a configuration on it that looked clearly like a Greek cross.
He showed the stone to Deanna and told her, “I think I just got my answer.”
She took one look at it and said, “I think you did.”
After that John dove into Orthodoxy, finished his catechism and was chrismated in 2012 when he was 49 years old. “Seeing my enthusiasm Fr. Sotirios invited me to learn the services from the chanter's box,” John said, “and as I came to understand the meaning behind the words I was chanting, I first felt a calling to the priesthood.”
But he realized that to be able to respond to that call, his wife would have to convert as well, and she made it clear she had no intention of doing it. “So I got the idea to take her on a pilgrimage to Greece, thinking that if she visited a country steeped in Orthodoxy and walked where the Apostle Paul walked, she might soften,” John said.
Deanna resisted the idea at first but agreed when John told her he would take her to see the sites of a book she had read years before that had made a deep impression on her. That book was Eleni.
Here Deanna picks up the story. “I read Eleni when it first came out in 1984, three years before I was married,” she said. “I was captivated by the story of this woman, Eleni, trying to raise her five children on her own in her small remote village, Lia, which was occupied by communist rebels during the Civil War. I was in awe of her strength and courage and unwavering faith, Orthodoxy, a religion I had never heard of before. Then in 1992, when I gave birth to my third child and only daughter, I wanted to name her Eleni, but John was opposed to the idea and we settled on Emily instead.”
Two decades later, when John converted to Orthodoxy, he tried to persuade Deanna to consider converting too, something she would have to do if he ever hoped to be ordained a priest. “But the harder he tried, the more I dug in my heels,” she said. “Then one day he told me he was going to take me to Greece for my 50th birthday, which was the following year, 2015, and he was going to take me to Eleni`s house in the small village of Lia and possibly meet the author of the book to make up for not letting me name my daughter Eleni. He even agreed to add the name Eleni to our daughter Emily`s birth certificate by deed poll, which we did shortly after.”
In mid-July of 2015 John and Deanna visited Greece and made the trek to Lia high in the Mourgana mountains, whose peaks form the border with Albania. “To my delight not only did we get to meet the author, Nicholas Gage, but he showed us the places where the dramatic incidents described in the book played out and took us on a personal tour of his mother's house,” Deanna recalled.
“The place that touched me the most was when he showed us the basement where Eleni was kept prisoner and the slit in the stone wall where one of his sisters found a paper icon of the Virgin Mary that she had left behind with a message on the back of it for her children that said, `Don't worry. I am with her.'”
“Being in the very place where Eleni waited for her execution and found the strength in her faith to face her fate made me want to learn more about Orthodoxy. When we returned home, I read about the early church fathers and their emphasis on love and redemption, especially St. John Chrysostom's wonderful Easter sermon on how the Lord will accept `the last even as the first.' I read how the saints who suffered horrific martyrdoms were sustained by their faith and I came to understand why John was drawn to Orthodoxy.”
Yet she still felt reluctant to convert. “I knew if I were to become Orthodox, John most certainly would become a priest, something I didn't want because of all the responsibilities it would involve,” she said. “But in time I realized if this was something that God wanted, then who was I to stand in the way? I agreed to begin my catechism and to be baptized afterward.”
She had only one condition – she wanted to be baptized in Lia. John readily agreed and they began planning a second trip to Greece for the summer of 2017. “I wrote Nick Gage to ask if he could make the arrangements for the baptism, which he kindly volunteered to do,” she said. “Then I called a Greek American friend in Omaha, NE, Christina Piperis, whom I met in Lia on my previous visit, to ask her to come and be my godmother and she said yes on the spot. So everything was set when we arrived in the village that summer, this time with our second son Karl making the trip with us.”
The actual baptism was held at a crystal clear stream below the village with the abbot of a nearby monastery, Fr. Methodios, officiating, and the regional mayor, Spyros Pappas, chanting. “It was the most amazing and life changing baptism that I could have ever imagined, especially with John and Karl there to witness it,” said Deanna. “I will remember it every day of my life.”
Less than two months later, on September 12, 2017, their 30th wedding anniversary, John and Deanna were married in the Greek Orthodox Church of Evangelismos in West Perth, Western Australia.
Soon after John began preparations for the priesthood under the direction of his spiritual advisor, Fr. Emmanuel Stamatiou.
In the fall of 2019, the new leader of the Greek Orthodox Church of Australia, Archbishop Makarios, visited St. Nicholas Church in Dunbury, and after the liturgy he spoke with John and told him he wanted to ordain him personally when he was ready.
On February 9, 2020 Archbishop Makarios kept his pledge and returned to Western Australia and ordained John as a deacon. But last summer when John was ready to be ordained as a priest, Australia, like the rest of the world, was in the throes of COVID 19, and the Archbishop couldn't make the trip to officiate.
So on August 22, 2020 the regional prelate, the Archepiscopal Vicar of Perth, Bishop Elpidios of Kyaneon, ordained the Rev. John Sullivan – the first convert and non-Greek to become an Orthodox priest in Western Australia – at Evangelismos Church in Perth as the new priest's wife, Presvytera Deanna, and his children and grandchildren watched from the front pew.
Soon after, he was named the successor to his retiring mentor, Fr. Sotirios Vlahopoulos, as the priest of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Dunbury, Western Australia. At the midnight service this Easter, Fr. John Sullivan will carry out into the darkened church one lighted candle, to pass the light of the Resurrection on to the waiting faithful of St. Nicholas, the parish where he saw the first flashes of his new faith. AXIOS!