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A Family of 'Vows': The Son of a Priest and a Nun

His mother is a former nun; his father is a priest who never renounced his vows, but is considered a priest under suspension. Peter Manseau's parents married in the 1960s; he tells their story -- and his own -- in his memoir, Vows.

The book 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 living in 1950s Boston, facing up to the church's authority.

Peter Manseau's mother, Mary, left the convent in the late 1960s. But Bill Manseau believed then, as he still does today, that he was called to be a married priest, that his actions might help to end the requirements of celibacy. The church felt otherwise.

As related in Vows, that dilemma has been an integral force in Peter Manseau's life. His parents never turned their backs on religion, even as they've sought to reform some of its modern applications. And along with their son, they certainly haven't turned their backs on one another, either.

Manseau is also the founding editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha, an award-winning Web site that approaches religion from the viewpoint of people who aren't religious. He is the co-author of a book by the same name, subtitled "A Heretic's Bible."

Read an Excerpt from 'Vows':

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 trashcan 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 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 a 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 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 the broken glass at their feet, splinters of grace that cut as well as shine.

Excerpted from Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son by Peter Manseau; Copyright 2005 by Peter Manseau. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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