Joe Connolly (from l. to r.) , chairman of the St. Vincent DePaul Mission, his brother Fran Connolly, Father Jim Sullivan, Nathan Collette and Jack Senich stand in front of the “Welcome to New York” sign during last year's charity ride to benefit St. Vincent DePaul Mission in Waterbury, Conn. Father Sullivan (l.) and Joe Connolly are shown standing in front of the mission. (Photo provided)
Joe Connolly (from l. to r.) , chairman of the St. Vincent DePaul Mission, his brother Fran Connolly, Father Jim Sullivan, Nathan Collette and Jack Senich stand in front of the “Welcome to New York” sign during last year's charity ride to benefit St. Vincent DePaul Mission in Waterbury, Conn. Father Sullivan (l.) and Joe Connolly are shown standing in front of the mission. (Photo provided)

John F. Kennedy once said, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” For Father Jim Sullivan, nothing could be more true.

Pastor of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Conn., Father Sullivan grew up on two wheels: “I was on the bike constantly,” he said. “You develop muscle memory ... it’s like second nature.”

Father Sullivan’s love for biking is a hobby passed down from his late mother, Phyllis. When his mother was just 17, she and her friend decided to bike from their hometown in Waterbury to Montreal. Just recently, Father Sullivan, 61, honored his mother’s trek by making the same trip, only backwards.

“I did 204 miles in a day,” he said. “I left from the Canadian line for Connecticut just after 4 a.m. and got back just after 10 p.m., at night. Just about 18 hours of riding.”

Now, the Connecticut priest is gearing up to combine his passion for biking with his passion for helping others. To help raise money and awareness for the St. Vincent DePaul Mission in Waterbury, Father Sullivan is organizing the second annual “Cycle For Hope” fundraiser on Sept. 26: a 100-mile bike ride from his parish in Waterbury to the Church of St. Vincent De Paul in Albany.

“It’s a challenge,” he said, “and I think a human person was meant for challenges.”

Father Sullivan came up with the idea last year while kicking around fundraising projects for St. Vincent DePaul Mission. A recent board member for the mission and former employee (his first job out of college was working for the mission), the organization means a lot to him. So, he organized a bike ride.

“One of my friends, who is a chair of the St. Vincent DePaul Mission, is into biking,” Father Sullivan said. “So I said, ‘You’re into biking and I’m into biking, what do you say we go on a bike ride and try to do something?’ ” 

The fundraiser was no small feat. Last year, Father Sullivan and five other bikers strapped in for the 100-mile bike ride (or “century ride”) starting from the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and ending in the Albany Diocese. The trek was held on Sept. 27, the feast day of St. Vincent De Paul, in honor of the saint’s work for the poor, hungry and homeless. The ride was 104 miles in total and took eight hours to complete. 

“It’s a landmark to say you did 100 (miles) in a day,” Father Sullivan said. “So I said let’s see if there’s any significant landmark about 100 miles away and we found a St. Vincent De Paul Church in Albany.”

After their arrival, Father Sullivan traded his biking gear for vestments and helped celebrate the 4:30 p.m., Mass at St. Vincent De Paul. While a little sweaty and tired from the trip, it was an experience unlike anything the group had done before. After last year’s initial success, the riders decided to do it again.

The crew is hoping to break last year’s fundraising record, which netted over $20,000 for the St. Vincent DePaul Mission, and collect $50,000. More than the money, Father Sullivan said a big part of this journey is also raising awareness about the mission. Father Sullivan and other riders will be posting photo updates on social media as they travel north, and Father Sullivan’s brother, John, will drive alongside the riders with snacks and water, also acting as a safety net in case of injuries.

Just like the first “Cycle For Hope,” the day will kick off at 6:30 a.m. with Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Ten riders will join Father Sullivan this year, a mix of cyclists also on the board of St. Vincent DePaul, and general biking friends from the area. Given the distance, everyone attending is an experienced biker, trained for the long ride. Last year, the crew hit the road by 8 a.m., and arrived in Albany at 4 p.m., making a pit stop at St. James Church in Chatham for a quick rest. Father Sullivan hopes to stick to the same schedule this year.

“We averaged 16.6 miles per hour; that’s a decent pace,” Father Sullivan said. “That’s not professional but for a group of guys, that’s a decent pace.”

More than great exercise, the time spent on a bike, clearing one’s head can be very peaceful. “I find biking very prayerful,” Father Sullivan said. “You’re just in the quiet of the moment and you feel the wind passing by, sort of like motorcyclists do, but this is while you’re exercising and your heart’s pounding and you’re breathing and praying.”

Father Sullivan recalled the first “century ride” he did at 19 while attending Providence College in Rhode Island. After school let out for the summer, he decided to ride back to Waterbury, a total of 105 miles away. After that, he wanted to do a double-century and ride 230 miles.

It wasn’t until he joined the priesthood in 2014 that he started to bring biking into his vocation. Growing up, Father Sullivan always thought about becoming a priest but never felt fully called to the role. After college, Father Sullivan connected with the St. Vincent DePaul Mission, working in their mental health unit for a few years. Then, one morning over breakfast, he approached his brother with an idea.

“I said ‘John, what do you think about starting a business?’ ” Father Sullivan recalled. “We always loved to work with our hands — Lincoln logs, tinker toys and building forts. I remember my brother was eating a bowl of Cheerios and he paused for about five seconds, he looked up at me and he said, ‘Huh, OK.’ ”

The brothers placed a $5 ad in the local paper for “Sullivan Brothers,” their new construction company. Since then, their company has grown into a robust business, overseeing 33 employees.

Then, at 53, Father Sullivan felt the strong calling to the priesthood he always lacked: “I said to my brother, I think I’m being called to be a priest,” Father Sullivan recalled. “And he said, ‘I knew this day would come.’ ”

Even after departing from Sullivan Brothers, Father Sullivan likes to say he never left the construction business. “I tell people I moved from building and remodeling homes to building and remodeling hearts,” he laughed. “I’m still in the building vocation.”

Now, Father Sullivan is excited for his next biking adventure along his vocation journey.

“I’m looking forward to having more people (this ride) and looking forward to getting it more recognized on social media,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the ride but to be honest I’m looking forward to raising more funds for St. Vincent DePaul. I believe in the mission, so it’ll be a combination of work but a lot of fun.”