According to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, “Monsignor O’Sullivan was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 19, 1874. As a boy he studied at Saint Xavier School in Louisville and later entered the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was ordained in 1904. O’Sullivan decided to visit San Juan Capistrano and, as he stepped off the train and walked the short distance to the Mission, he saw and fell in love with the magnificent ruins.”
Under his leadership, the mission was restored in the early 1900s and developed the conservation program. Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano July 5, 1910. He resided in a tent since the former living quarters of Father Mut had insects. He started the restoration (carving beams, plastering walls with adobe, and using square nails to restore parts of the Mission) of the once abandoned site that had been in disarray. O’Sullivan plastered the walls with adobe and replaced the bricks. He co-authored Capistrano Nights which details the local San Juan Capistrano folklore and the return of the Swallows every year.
Father O’Sullivan was a personal friend of Nellie Gail Moulton. Nellie shared in her 1969 oral history, “Yes. O’Sullivan was a priest. And Father O’Sullivan gave me fish to put in my little pool up on the ranch. And Father O’Sullivan was a greatly beloved man as I remember him.”
Nellie Gail Moulton, interview by Helen Smith, February 21, 1969, OH 3639, Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton.
Photo courtesy Orange County Archives of Mission San Juan Capistrano, circa 1910.
San Juan Capistrano Historical Society stated that “Father O’Sullivan began to dream. He knew what the Mission had been and he now dreamed of what it could be again. Not knowing when his life might suddenly be cut off, he labored only for the present. He began to store old tile, carvings, and other pieces of the Mission, believing that someone would come after him and complete the restoration of the Mission. O’Sullivan worked with his own hands, carving beams, plastering walls with adobe, using square nails to restore parts of the Mission. Slowly the Mission began to respond to his work and amazingly O’Sullivan’s health grew better each day.
Gathering the parishioners into a parish organization, in 1918 the Mission was given parochial status with Father O’Sullivan as its first modern pastor. Uppermost in the pastor’s mind was the restoration of the Serra Chapel. In 1922 this was accomplished and the beautiful reredo from Spain was installed behind the altar. A parish grade school was established in 1928 with the teaching Sisters of the Immaculate Conception from Ohio.”