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— Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics and author of Turbulent Souls
"[Vows] forms a history of how the priesthood evolved — and how people navigate the boundaries between religious tradition and modern life. In the process, Manseau paints a picture of liberal — and devoutly religious — Catholics facing up to the church's authority."
— Terry Gross, Fresh Air
"With the grace of a gifted storyteller and a son's love for his parents, Peter Manseau tells a story that's not been previously told....Vows...isn't sensational or hostile, but rather a revelatory and nuanced exploration of his parents and their relationship with the Catholic Church, which has both blessed them and wounded them."
— Paula Voell, The Buffalo News
"There are moments in Vows...when the prose is so achingly beautiful that the reader must stop for a moment.... If you've ever graced a pew or wondered about the people who do, Vows goes a long way toward explaining faith."
— Hartford Courant
My parents don't remember their earliest conversation. What was said when, who spoke first and why: these are details almost forty years gone. All my father can tell me is that he met my mother in his storefront ministry center in Roxbury late in the spring of 1968. A year before, he had rented an abandoned funeral home on Shawmut Avenue, propped open the doors to thin the stench of flowers and embalming fluid, and hung a sign out front declaring that all were welcome. A few months later, someone threw a metal trash can through the plate-glass window beside the entrance. He covered the hole and cleaned up as best he could, but there was no end to the mess that had been made.
When my father describes the room in which he met my mother, he is always sure to mention the biblical murals that decorated the walls. I suppose he likes the image of the two of them surrounded by life-size portraits of prophets and saints, but my mind is drawn instead to all that stubborn glass, to tiny slivers working their way deep into the shag carpet, catching light whenever the overhead fluorescents were on.
Wednesday evenings, Dad tells me, he would walk down Fort Hill from the All Saints rectory and preach in his storefront to whomever would listen. Sometimes he drew a crowd that filled five rows of folding chairs: families from the Lenox Street housing projects, drunks from Blue Hill Avenue, a handful of sisters from the convent nearby. One night the woman who would be my mother was among them. They all sat together with the soles of their shoes crunching the carpet below; singing, clapping, praying in a building that still wore scars from the previous summer, the season when the city burned.
That's how I imagine the scene of my parents' meeting, as a series of contrasts and contradictions. Standing between a cardboard-patched window and scripture-painted walls, half-buried shards twinkling like stars beneath them, they made their introductions in the middle of a storefront with nothing to sell. He was a Catholic priest wearing a white plastic collar like a lock around his neck. She was a nun in a virgin's black veil.
What did they say? Too much has happened since then; it's no surprise they can't remember the simple greeting that started it all. Whatever the words might have been, I know they were spoken in a place full of the kind of faith with which I was raised, the kind of faith that knows how close hope and pain are to moments of possibility; the kind that sees something holy in that broken glass at their feet, splinters of grace that cut as well as shine.
Copyright ©2005 by Peter Manseau
Brick and Mortar
According to Thy Will
Brides of Christ
Prophets of Doom
From Many Wounds
City on a Hill
june 14, 1969
Ex Damnato Coitu
In Search Of
The Word Made Strange
Smoke and Mirrors
"My Life Has Always Been Secret"
In the Beginning Was the Word
Epilogue: Exiles at Rest
List of Illustrations
Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son
Questions for Discussion
1. Is Vows a story of vows made, or vows broken? How would you describe this book -- as a love story, a religious journey, or both? Discuss the symbolism of the title, and the dual meaning that is implied.
2. Author Peter Manseau follows his mother and father through their childhoods, details their years of religious training, and recreates their inner worlds. How, as a writer, does Peter accomplish this? How does he give voice to each individual character? Discuss the unique use of language and narrative structure in Vows.
3. If the Manseaus' story had been told by someone other than their son, how might it have been different? Would you have felt differently about these characters had you read about them in a newspaper, or heard about them on the news? And if so, do you think you would have been more or less interested? Sympathetic? Opinionated?
4. Peter believed that his family had been shaped "first and foremost by the fact of [his] father's vocation" -- until he uncovers the evidence of his mother's scandalous secret in the form of correspondence, press clippings, and legal documents. Discuss the journalistic process through which Peter learns the truth about his mother...and his own family history.
5. Mary's religious training dates back to her early years at St. Margaret's Elementary where she was taught -- as the school pamphlet from the time puts it -- "the love of God, and all that love implies and demands in the way of self-control and obedience to the Ten Commandments and the practice of Catholic truth." In your opinion did Mary follow or stray from these teachings throughout the course of her life? Discuss the evolution of Mary's religious identity.
6. It can be said that the one thing every religion has in common is storytelling -- from the Greco-Roman myths to the Old and New Testaments. What is so powerful about a story? How sacred is the written word? What can be revealed from the Manseaus' story? Is there a "moral" to Vows?
7. Many stories have emerged in recent times about the subject of sexuality in the priesthood. How, if at all, does the story of William Manseau's time in the seminary change or confirm your ideas about the state of the Church in America? Discuss the ways in which Vows puts such controversial issues as the sex-abuse scandal, celibacy, homosexuality, gay marriage, even abortion into new context.
8. What questions are you left with after reading Vows -- about William and Mary Manseau, the author, and yourself? How might you, as a group, go about answering them? Do you think the subject of religion is best kept private? Or do you believe that discussing our beliefs can help us to better understand, respect, and tolerate one another?
Posted June 21, 2006
As a Bostonian, and a former student of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I found this book very interesting and well written. The author did his research and understands the hold that the Church has on so many people, especially his parents.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 2005
I read this book and just finished it this morning and couldn't put it down. I am ordering 2 online right this minute for my sisters to read. I would say every one needs to read it to appreciate what this is about. It is a marvelous story told a love story about a family and about a way of being IN the world and about our faith, back then and NOW! It's positively an AWESOME story, I guarantee every one that starts this book will not be able to put it down. It's just a wonderful, incredible story. I think it should be a movie some day!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 16, 2005
I find this book very intriguing and can't wait to read it. It really sounds like the the true story of Pierre Abelard and Heloise. A monk and a nun who fell in love, never married and had a child. This happened in the 12th century in France.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 1, 2010
No text was provided for this review.