Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son


The 1950s was a boom time for the Catholic Church in America, with large families of devout members providing at least one son or daughter for a life of religious service. Boston was at the epicenter of this explosion, and Bill Manseau and Mary Doherty — two eager young parishioners from different towns — became part of a new breed of clergy, eschewing the comforts of homey parishes and choosing instead to minister to the inner-city poor. Peter Manseau's riveting evocation of his parents' parallel childhoods, ...

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Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son

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The 1950s was a boom time for the Catholic Church in America, with large families of devout members providing at least one son or daughter for a life of religious service. Boston was at the epicenter of this explosion, and Bill Manseau and Mary Doherty — two eager young parishioners from different towns — became part of a new breed of clergy, eschewing the comforts of homey parishes and choosing instead to minister to the inner-city poor. Peter Manseau's riveting evocation of his parents' parallel childhoods, their similar callings, their experiences in the seminary and convent, and how they met while tending to the homeless of Roxbury during the riot-prone 1960s is a page-turning meditation on the effect that love can have on profound faith.

Once married, the Manseaus continued to fight for Father Bill's right to serve the church as a priest, and it was into this situation that Peter and his siblings were born and raised to be good Catholics while they witnessed their father's personal conflict with the church's hierarchy. A multigenerational tale of spirituality, Vows also charts Peter's own calling, one which he tried to deny even as he felt compelled to consider the monastic life, toying with the idea of continuing a family tradition that stretches back over 300 years of Irish and French Catholic priests and nuns.

It is also in Peter's deft hands that we learn about a culture and a religion that has shaped so much of American life, affected generations of true believers, and withstood great turmoil. Vows is a compelling tale of one family's unshakable faith that to be called is to serve, however high the cost may be.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The title says it all: a twin set of Catholic dreams and ideals gone awry-or holding fast, depending on what angle you're looking from. Manseau's memoir returns to the 1950s, the early years of his parents' devotion to the Church, and their eventual straying. Lawlor gives a solid reading of Manseau's story, which aches with the tenderness of a son's love for his parents. His voice occupies only a small range, shifting slightly to indicate emotion, affect or the speech of others, but adequately gets out of the way of Manseau's narrative. He chooses not to attempt the inimitable Boston accent of the book's characters, for the most part, wisely leaving the sound of their true voices to his listeners' imaginations. Lawlor stakes out a tone part nostalgic, part removed and part regretful, nicely duplicating the feel of Manseau's book and its conflicted feelings about the Church that so thoroughly dominated its protagonists' lives. Simultaneous release with the Free Press hardcover. (Reviews, July 25). (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An elegant, sonorous story of how faith can turn and bite you clear through, from a son of the bitten. Manseau, co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004), is the child of two devout and disobedient Catholics, his father an excommunicated priest, his mother a former nun. Called to their vocations in Boston during the 1950s, his mother had exited the convent by 1968, but his father was still much involved with the Church. A product of Catholicism's avant-garde, Bill Manseau felt he could meld his identity as a priest with a relationship with one he loved. Grace, authority and even God were at stake; the author's father took the plunge and married. He joined a company of priests who had done so in hopes of reversing the Church's policy of celibacy, which they believed had become a perversion of the early Christians' belief that marriage was pointless given the imminence of Christ's return to redeem the world. Instead, "hope for the world turned into hatred of it" in the celibate priesthood. Manseau's work is a powerful narrative history of a vocation steeped in earthly influences. He rolls out the power networks of the priests, cops and politicians who ruled Boston; the lives of seminarians; and the evolution of progressive religious politics. After being excommunicated, his father remained a man of the people, believing in a Jesus who offered "respect, care, affection, healing" to all. Only late in the book do we learn the primary reason Manseau's mother took off her habit; it will be all too familiar to members of the scandal-plagued Boston archdiocese. Nonetheless, Manseau feels intellectually and emotionally drawn to religion. His quest provides a study in contrast withthat of his parents, yet the final chapter shows how close they remain. Quiet yet resounding testament to genuine religious striving.
From the Publisher
"This is a strange and marvelous story, told with unerring grace. In the Manseau family, the call to religious service is like the call of the ancient Sirens. And yet they survive. Peter Manseau's writing is keen-eyed, lyrical, muscular, and more, and while Vows is a story about big ideas — religion, devotion, sacrifice — it is above all a love letter to his own family."

— 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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400101979
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/28/2005
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 5.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Manseau

Patrick Lawlor has recorded over three hundred audiobooks in just about every genre. He has been an Audie Award finalist several times and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards. He has won a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, numerous Library Journal and Kirkus starred audio reviews, and multiple Editors' Picks, Top 10, and Year's Best lists.

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    1. Hometown:
      Charlottesville, Virginia
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 15, 1974
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Massachusetts, 1996
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


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

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Table of Contents



Part One


Via Crucis

Brick and Mortar

Sacred Hearts

According to Thy Will

Part Two


Benedicamus Domino



Brides of Christ

Part Three


Prophets of Doom

From Many Wounds

City on a Hill

Heart-Shaped Stone

june 14, 1969

Part Four


Preaching, Waiting

Holy Family

Ex Damnato Coitu

In Search Of

The Word Made Strange

Part Five


Smoke and Mirrors

Prodigal Sons

"My Life Has Always Been Secret"

In the Beginning Was the Word

Epilogue: Exiles at Rest

List of Illustrations


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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion from the Publisher
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?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2006

    Excellent reading!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2005

    Sounds very familiar

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

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