By NANCY CZABALA
ISLE OF PALMS — Father John Sheehan, SMA, traveled a long road in his 50 years in the priesthood before he came to settle in Isle of Palms. While working in his home town of Waterbury, Conn., in his early 20s, he did a novena to the Lady of the Miraculous Medal, asking for a new job. The answer he received — the priesthood — was not quite what he was expecting. Though not immediately receptive to the idea, he said, “I knew in the back of my mind that God was calling.” Under the guidance of his parish priest, Father Jim Wooden, he entered the seminary. He was ordained on Feb. 7, 1948, in Washington in the Society of African Missions; from there he knew he wanted to be a missionary.
He spent five years in Liberia, Africa, ministering to 10 schools. Their main mission was to educate the youth in the area. Father Sheehan walked 30 miles a day, traveling to the schools to teach. He proudly recalled that a former student became a bishop in Liberia. After five years of spreading his knowledge to the children in the area and enduring the physical exertion of his duties, he returned to Waterbury, Conn., to regain his strength from some persistent illnesses.
In 1955 he began his priestly journey in the United States, beginning in Washington as the spiritual director at the Society of African Missions. After a few years he went to the Society of African Missions in Dedham, Mass., where he taught first- and second-year students in English.
Then he found himself in Macon, Ga., serving as pastor at St. Peter Claver parish. From there he went to Tucson, Ariz., where the bishop asked him to close an African-American parish, integrating them with another parish. Proving to be a tough assignment, Father Sheehan went on to create Holy Family where he served as pastor. While in Arizona Father Sheehan also served at an Indian mission. The West Coast was his next stop, serving as an associate at St. Adilia parish in Watts, Calif.
Spending only a few years at each of his assignments, Father Sheehan then settled for 12 years in Augusta, Ga., where he was pastor of Immaculate Conception. Then from the South to New Jersey, where he spent the second half of his priesthood, first in Spotswood, N.J., at Immaculate Conception. Then, he was the chaplain at the hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. From there he went to Howell, N.J., to St. Veronica’s Parish. Then for nine years, he served as an associate at St. Mark’s in Seagirt, N.J., followed by eight years at Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park, N.J.
Along his travels Father Sheehan and another priest bought a house in Isle of Palms, where they planned to retire. Now that the time had come Father Sheehan headed back to the South. However, when he arrived, Hurricane Hugo had gotten there first, leaving four and a half feet of water in his home, requiring time to refurbish.
Father Sheehan, who is in residence at Stella Maris on Sullivan’s Island, now actively travels around the area helping out the local parishes from Myrtle Beach to John’s Island to Goose Creek, celebrating Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. His Golden Retriever, Sarge, keeps him on track. He jokingly says he named him Sarge, because “He’s running my life.”
Throughout his years in the priesthood, he said the most enjoyable aspect was working with the poor, to which he added that he’s more concerned now with reaching out to the poor. The thing that stands out the most for Father Sheehan — seeing a growing love for God in himself and others; “it has to start with you,” he said.
As a disheartened first-year student in the seminary, he woke up every day telling God, “I’m leaving here today.” But, he said, “God has his own way of working things out and it’s been a happy life.”