PAXTON — For decades, James C. Graham was tormented by a simple, but profound question: Why did his father seem to dislike him so much?
On Tuesday, the South Carolina man confirmed the bittersweet truth: The man who raised him wasn’t his father at all.
Graham’s extraordinary 25-year effort to find the truth about his father ended when a forensic anthropologist told him that his DNA matched samples taken from a deceased Catholic priest who grew up in Lowell and graduated from Boston College.
“You’ve driven all the way from South Carolina to find out whether Father Thomas Sullivan was your father, and I’m here to tell you that he was,” said Ann Marie Mires, director of forensic criminology at Anna Maria College.
Graham, 73, embraced Mires as he fought back tears. “I don’t think I’ve ever hugged a doctor, but thank you,” he said.
With those words, Graham entered a little-known coterie of people fathered by Catholic priests who break their promise of celibacy. Though their exact number can’t be known, with more than 400,000 priests worldwide, there may be thousands of people like Graham, often growing up without the love and support of their biological fathers or shamed into keeping their father’s identity secret.
Graham had long suspected that Sullivan was his father, but his mother and Sullivan took the secret to their graves. After a family relative showed him a picture of the priest and Graham saw the similarities in their faces, he began his quest for the truth. Eventually, he appealed all the way to Rome and amassed official documents showing Sullivan was almost certainly his father.
Still, he lacked conclusive proof or official acknowledgment. Finally, Graham asked Sullivan’s religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for permission to exhume Sullivan’s body from a cemetery in Tewksbury to conduct the DNA test.
To his surprise, the 202-year-old Catholic religious order agreed.
“I didn’t think I’d have to go through all the things I’ve been through to get here, but now I can confirm that Father Tom Sullivan was my father,” he said.
Graham, the subject of a 2017 Globe Spotlight report on the children of Catholic priests, said he hopes his determination will inspire others who believe they may be the offspring of Catholic priests.
He also plans to work with Coping International, an advocacy organization based in Ireland that works with the sons and daughters of Catholic priests globally.
“My message to others is, don’t quit. You may be disappointed along the way, but you’ll get to where you want to be,” Graham said.
Vincent Doyle, founder of Coping International, said he was pleased with the results of the DNA tests but criticized Oblate officials for not doing more to confirm Graham’s parentage before Graham had to resort to DNA tests on his father’s body.
“I feel so sorry for Jim that he’s had to come all this way to have a natural right acknowledged,” he said. “No church should ever do that to a human being.”
But the Rev. Thomas G. Coughlin, assistant to the Rev. Louis Studer, the head of the Oblates in the United States, said the religious order doesn’t have any records that refer to children that Sullivan may have fathered. Still, he said he was pleased that Graham finally got an answer to his long-asked question.
“Good,” he said, when told of the results. “I hope this brings some peace of mind to Jim Graham, who for so long has sought to confirm his origin.”
Graham’s remarkable journey began in December 1993, when he confronted an aging aunt and uncle with a rumor he had heard from another family member: that the disagreeable man who had raised him might not have been his father.
Seated at the couple’s kitchen table, Graham’s Aunt Kathryn unfolded an obituary from a Catholic newsletter and slid it across the table to Graham. She jabbed her finger at a picture of a sad, balding figure wearing a priest’s clerical collar who had died earlier that year, the Rev. Thomas Sullivan.
“Only the principals know for sure,” she said, “but this may be your father.”
Graham was struck by similarities between the priest’s facial features and his own, and he resolved to find out as much as he could about the priest.
He soon learned that his late mother had left her husband and his two older sisters in Buffalo shortly after Graham’s birth in 1945. She fled to Manhattan with the new baby and left Graham in the care of a Catholic adoption agency there that she used for day-care services.
Graham obtained church documents from a sympathetic priest showing that, at about the same time his mother had fled Manhattan, Sullivan had deserted the Oblates, leaving no forwarding address and saying he would never return.
Graham also hired a private detective agency, which retrieved records from his parents’ 1948 divorce in which Graham’s uncle described bursting into a Manhattan apartment and finding Graham’s mother in bed with a man from Buffalo.
The documents also included records from the adoption agency, which refer to Graham as an “o.w. child,” or a child born out of wedlock, with a sympathetic “alleged father” living in the area.
Taken together, the documents show that Sullivan was very likely Graham’s father.
But, if Graham’s mother and Sullivan were trying to embark on a new life and raise their son, their plans were abruptly dashed in the early morning hours of July 29, 1947, when Graham’s uncle and private detectives raided their New York City apartment. This, Graham said, gave his stepfather the evidence he needed to divorce his mother and retain custody of him and two girls that Graham now knows are his half-sisters.
Graham’s mother, Helen O’Connell, remarried and moved to Long Island, where she worked as a nurse. After her second husband died, she moved back to Buffalo and remained close to Graham, though she never revealed the secret.
Church records show that Sullivan rejoined the Oblates and spent the next 16 years doing penance — translating religious texts and performing menial tasks — at a shrine the Oblates maintained in upstate New York.
When the Oblates considered him rehabilitated, he fulfilled various assignments around the country before returning to Tewksbury, where he died in 1993 of melanoma in the infirmary overlooking the cemetery where he was laid to rest.
“They tried to bury our history,” Graham said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Michael Rezendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.