By the time he was in his late twenties, Peter Manseau had already received a bachelors degree in religion, spent time in a Trappist monastery considering a vocation to be a monk, worked at the National Yiddish Book Center and started the popular website Killing the Buddha which bills itself as “a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches.” If it seems like Manseau has a terminal case of God on the brain it is understandable, it is after all the family business. He is the youngest of three children born to Rev. Bill Manseau a former priest of the Archdiocese of Boston who refused to renounce his priestly vows when he married a former nun, Mary Doherty, in the late 1960s.
In his moving memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son, Peter Manseau tells his family’s story from the parochial world of Catholic Boston in the 1950s that formed his parents, through their meeting and eventual marriage during a time of great upheaval and renewal after Vatican II in the 1960s. Vows also recounts how complicated and difficult the Manseau family’s life frequently was with a father who lived with the fervent hope of being called back into priestly service by the Church and a mother who for decades held onto the secret of her abuse at the hands of a priest when she was a teenager.
In this interview, Peter Manseau recalls how he struggled to do justice to his parents’ unique and often difficult life stories. As a new father himself, Manseau also discusses how his own engagement with religion and faith has changed over the years.
Busted Halo: How long did it take you until you realized your family was different?
Peter Manseau: Well, I didn’t really have anything to compare it to growing up. As I write in the book this was what the community we were part of was like. Many of the families were in similar circumstances. It really started when I began elementary school and my CCD religion classes through the parish church in town. I guess it was at that time that I began hearing things about church doctrine and church practice that didn’t really line up with the way my family existed. So, hearing things about priests and nuns and the kinds of lives they were supposed to live didn’t connect with the priests and former nuns that were my family friends and fact my parents and how they lived. It was a process of learning the official church line and realizing my family didn’t quite fit with that.
BH: Was your worship community essentially made up of former priests and nuns or did you belong to a more conventional church in Boston?
PM: Well, we did both. We had a sort of dual life in terms of what kind of Catholics we were. At home we would have home liturgies quite often. Which at that time was not all that unusual, I think. I don’t think you had to be a former priest to be saying mass at home at that time. I think it was part of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s at that time with certain people. So, we had that with these former priests and non-practicing priests. But it was important to my parents, especially to my mother that we would be a good church-going family. So, we went to the local parish church in suburban Boston and we went frequently to churches that the pastor had been a friend of theirs and where they met.
BH: So, growing up, when people asked what your dad did, what did you say?
PM: Well, that was always a difficult question. My impression was that he had good steady work [after leaving the priesthood] with different governmental health agencies before I was born…There were some lean times when my father was trying to find work and was stuck in the situation where he was a well-educated and in some ways overeducated man for a very particular vocation and not having a secular way to work with it. So, we went through a few years of that where my mother was the primary breadwinner for the family.
BH: What did she do?
PM: It’s funny to call it the primary breadwinner. She had been a teacher when she was a nun. When she left she stayed at home to raise us. And when she needed work she was an assistant to a public school teacher and then and a public school teacher herself. My father eventually became a pastoral counselor. He has his own practice where he sees patients. So, he’s like a Christian therapist.
BH: What were your parents’ reactions when you told them you wanted to write this?
PM: Well, ten years ago when I thought about writing it they thought it was a terrible idea. My father said he didn’t want to make their love story a matter of the public record. What I know now is that when I asked them that initially it was 1996 or so and my mother was just making a sexual abuse claim against the church and this priest in the archdiocese of Boston. So, when I raised the issue of writing the story they were still learning a lot about themselves that they weren’t able to talk about for many decades. So, it was all very raw still. When I asked ten years later, I had already begun my career as a writer and they saw I knew what I was doing and they turned to me to tell their story. So, they were nervous going into it and weren’t really sure what kind of book I had in mind. The kind of book I had in mind was basically the book that came to be.
PM: When I was working on it I would show them bits and pieces they would react with mixed feelings. I think in part because they couldn’t see the whole and didn’t know where I was going. But now that they’ve seen it, I think they feel good about it.
BH: What was the toughest thing for you as their son in researching and writing this story?
PM: Well, when I began it, I think I tried to write it too much as their son. I was trying to be too much in the story, I’m in the story a lot already, but envisioning the parts before I was born, when I first began writing about them, I had trouble separating out this is my father and this is my mother. Once I realized I had that problem, I just stopped. I began thinking about Father Bill and Sister Thomas Patrick. And I just looked at two people who were younger than I am now and lived in very interesting times and lived in a world that was completely alien to me. I realized I was writing a kind of historical fiction. It was my job to find out who these characters were and write about them as characters at a particular place and time. As soon as I did that, I got over a lot of the hard parts. But of course when I would learn about these characters and what they had been through, it would hit me that of course I’m writing about my family. So, the revelation about the abuse case was very hard to learn. There was some hesitation on my part initially if it had to be in the book. But I decided that if I was going to tell the story, it had to be in there ultimately.
BH: Nobody else in the family knew about the abuse your mother had been the victim of?
PM: No, she told my father in 1995, which is still 25 years after their marriage.
BH: Forty years after the abuse, right?
BH: So this has been a protracted battle for her?
PM: Yeah. It went on for years without my knowing.
BH: I was amazed that, years later, your mother confronted the priest who had abused her. Did you know about that back when she did it?
PM: Oh God, no.
BH: It must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do. Your mom is clearly a strong woman.
PM: Yeah. I always knew that about her but I just didn’t know to what extent. But I wasn’t surprised to learn that that is how she went about it, going alone without telling anybody. She’s also a very private person. She just wanted to see what she could find on her own before she talked to anyone else.
BH: Did she really expect that the priest would sort of break down and admit to these things and offer an apology or did she just want to confront him?
PM: That’s a good question. I think she would have wanted to hear an apology. It might have made it all go away for her. But she also hadn’t seen him in 30 years and she didn’t know quite what to expect. She was a child when she last dealt with him and he was a young man. And now she’s a woman approaching retirement and he was an elderly man. They were entirely different people. So, what she hoped to find I don’t really know. I know in my own life when you talk to people from different stages in your life you might as well be talking to a stranger. And I think she experienced something like that and I’m sure he did too, having this woman who he last knew as a girl, someone he could take advantage of and now, here’s a woman.
BH: When you talk about accompanying your father to meet with the archbishop in Boston to talk about his standing as a priest your father comes off like an idealist with tremendous enthusiasm. He’s almost got a “pie in the sky” sort of attitude that the Church is going to need married men like him to come back and serve again as priests. Is he still that way?
PM: He is. In some ways it’s impressive and some ways you feel kind of bad for the guy. He’s a true believer. It’s been a real education for me to hear from the people who knew him as a priest when he was young. I just got a letter in the mail from an 86 year-old gentleman that was forwarded to me by my publishers. He said that he knew my dad at St. Paul’s in Wellesley and that whenever you met Father Bill back then it seemed like he had just come back from having coffee with Jesus. He just felt like he was in the spirit. And I’m not surprised. Growing up I did feel that this was this otherworldly quality in him. And that’s not always the best thing to have in a father, of course. But there was always the sense of the importance he put in being a priest and serving what he considered the spirit.
BH: There is a powerful scene in your book when your father is attending a meeting with other former priests up in New Hampshire and your mom follows him up there and brow beats him for not being with his family.
PM: Yeah, there was a lot of that. And it was real cause of tension in my family. It’s interesting to think about what will happen if the church does allow most of it’s clergy to marry. What kind of families it will create. Because I think there will be all kinds of issues that people haven’t thought about. The celibate priests certainly have their issues but the married priests will as well.
BH: It’s funny because your folks come from a generation that lived directly through Vatican II and all the changes that it wrought. Yet I think there’s a sense that the issues that people like your father are concerned with aren’t the same as people in their 20’s and 30’s who are just starting out. How do you feel about that?
PM: I’m not in a community of young observant Catholics. So, I don’t know what their concerns are. The young Catholics I do know are a lot like my dad in that their Catholicism is expressed in their social conscience and their activism. So, I don’t know the kind of Catholics that would go to a big Catholic youth day or the kind that have an ecstatic devotion to John Paul II. I don’t know people like that. I don’t know what their concerns for the church are. I think it’s unfortunate if they look at someone like my father and see them as dinosaurs because I think a lot of what he’s talking about is still relevant for the church. In some ways I think it’s a bit of a dodge. Just like people who say that the priest shortage has been great for the church because it’s meant an increase in lay participation. What my father is after is a reconsideration of authority in the church and I don’t think that’s the concern of young Catholics today. And that should be a consideration for the church or any institution. You always need to think about how power works in an institution you care about.
BH: Have you or any of your siblings inherited your father’s enthusiasm and idealism?
PM: My sister, much more than my brother and I, is the social activist of the family and has been the all-purpose do-gooder. In her college days she dropped out to live on an Indian reservation for a while at a woman’s shelter. She went on to work with inner city youth in Portland, Oregon and then ended up doing volunteer time in Guatemala. Ultimately while she was there she decided she needed some practical skills to bring to people. So she became a nurse and is now an emergency room nurse. She’s very far from the church in terms of her own religiosity. But in terms of her social activism and whom she decides to help is very much like what my parents did. My brother and I both studied religion in college and both intellectualize it too much to be of any real good to people.