Review of Sonja Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street
November 6, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
One day, the Our Lady of Grace statue, the one that had stood in Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, New York, for practically a hundred years, had vanished. It happened during a great migration of new parishioners, coming from neighboring Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer churches, which had closed. They brought with them their favorite hymns, traditions, and statuary. Soon the Corpus Christi sanctuary looked like a convention of painted plaster holy figures. That’s when Our Lady—the Mary with the bluest mantle, the humblest expression, the most endearing face, which had held Livingston’s gaze since she was an altar girl—had disappeared.
But where? Livingston, a self-described obsessive, needed to know. Like Nancy Drew, she gathered facts and began tracking down the statue. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author travels to churches and salvage businesses, such as Pittsburgh’s Used Church Items, in search of her Mary. These short, engaging essays not only invite readers along on her quest, but delve into other church-related matters, such as Catholic rituals, history, and devotion.
Livingston grew up Catholic, though admits to attending sporadically, sometimes skipping for years at a time. “So, while I came eagerly to Mass, served proudly at the altar, and noticed the way that people from the neighborhood perked up at church like wilted plants given doses of water and light, I was not—by even the most generous interpretation of the word—devout,” she writes. Just speaking of God made her “shifty-eyed and spastic.”
I know the feeling. Some thirty years ago, I converted to Catholicism, shortly before I married my husband. He was Catholic, though did not expect me to become one. I’d grown up Southern Baptist, but the hell-and-brimstone preaching always left me wide-eyed and shaken. Marrying my husband presented an opportunity to become part of something that had mystified me as a teenager. I’d visited the local Catholic Church a few times with a friend. The priests’ gold embroidered robes, jewel-crusted chalices, and mysterious rituals spoken in Latin left me in awe. Just imagine my surprise looking into the dusty gold frames hanging on the walls and discovering bits of leg bone and skull fragments. I loved Easter when the priest strolled down the aisle, shaking the thurible, raising clouds of incense, sending sweet, musky prayers over the congregants. The pipe organ’s dark bellows rattled my breast bone, leaving me breathless and dazed. Any effort to put these feelings into words would have left me blushing and tongue-tied—like trying to explain a dream.
Perhaps devout Jews have it right, not speaking God’s name. In her essay “Absolute Mystery,” Livingston writes, “Theologian Karl Rahner preferred Absolute Mystery to the word God, saying: God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names.”
After becoming Catholic, I’d sit in the pew under St. Lucy’s stained-glass portrait, where the window’s cool, watery purples and Lucy’s gentle, rose-blushed gaze fell upon me. I can’t remember how many Sundays I sat there before I noticed dear Lucy had a thorn sticking out of her eye. I’d learn she had been martyred—her eyes gouged out. She was the saint to turn to for eye problems, and when I needed help, we talked.
In Montreal, in St. Joseph’s Oratory, a heart floats in a formaldehyde flask. It once beat in the chest of Brother André Bessette, who used his miracle oils to heal the sick. Upon his death, the church honored his good heart by putting it on display. However, in 1973, thieves stole it and held for a $50,000 ransom. In “The Heart Is a First-Class Relic,” Livingston tells how the church refused to barter for the beloved heart, describing it as priceless. A year-and-a-half later, a tipster led authorities to a basement apartment, and there, inside a footlocker, they found the flask, still with the heart. A little formaldehyde had leaked out, yet the heart remained in good condition.
Perhaps the most somber essay is “Miracle of the Eyes,” in which Livingston recounts her trip to Ireland to visit the Ballinspittle grotto. On a cold, drizzly night, on January 31, 1984, a fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her Catholic school uniform, gave birth in the grotto, next to the Our Lady statue. “Ann Lovett trudged through winter fields, pain mounting with every step,” Livingston writes. “Perhaps, she thought as she approached the church—letting herself believe in the beautiful way only the most desperate do—perhaps Our Lady will help.” No one came, and Lovett and her infant son died in the cold on the grounds of the Catholic Church—the institution that made sure birth control and abortion remained inaccessible.
This essay is exceptionally grim. In general, Livingston’s essays are light-hearted, witty, told in a comforting, sisterly voice, someone you can trust, someone who speaks her mind, someone who explores those things lost and found.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.