Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Sonby Peter Manseau
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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.
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."
- Free Press
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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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Meet the Author
Peter Manseau is the author of Vows and coauthor of Killing the Buddha. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. A founding editor of the award-winning webzine KillingTheBuddha.com, he is now the editor of Search, The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington, D.C., where he studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University.
- Charlottesville, Virginia
- Date of Birth:
- November 15, 1974
- Place of Birth:
- Washington, D.C.
- B.A., University of Massachusetts, 1996
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