Review: The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston

Review by Melissa Oliveira

There’s a moment late in Sonja Livingston’s new book of essays, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion (University of Nebraska Press, 2019) when she writes, “This is who you’ve become, I say to myself, a woman who looks at statues instead of people.” By then, Livingston is deep into the search for a particular statue of the Virgin Mary that provides a narrative spine for this collection about Livingston’s somewhat hesitant return to Catholicism in midlife. The statue — a large, blue-robed “Queen of a working-class parish” — served as a kind of symbolic center to Livingston’s childhood faith.

Decades later, in search of comfort and perhaps a few answers to the quandaries of midlife, Livingston returns to her childhood church of Corpus Christi during a Christmas Eve service only to find her beloved statue gone. It was misplaced, she learns, when several nearby churches were shuttered; their congregations, consolidated into Corpus Christi, brought with them more statues than there was space for, and her statue could have ended up in any number of places in upstate New York, ranging from churches to warehouses to shops dealing in secondhand spiritual items. The Virgin of Prince Street

While Livingston’s essays are indeed crowded with statues, relics, and other objects of faith, she doesn’t seem to miss the people in spite of her concerns. Indeed, in spite of her concerns, it’s the people Livingston meets in the course of her quest that lend a lot of heart to this slim collection — the statues, moving or otherwise, just provide occasions for contact and contemplation. In fact, her search for the Virgin of Prince Street and what the statue represents leads her on an international search for something much larger than the original statue. From the sacred Irish well in “Holy Water” and the healing dirt of New Mexico in “The Marigold Parade”, to the Louisiana priest who converted a former ambulance into a confessional-on-wheels in “Act of Contrition”, Livingston learns about living traditions of devotion that flourish far from the static facade of Catholic officialdom. “The Heart is a First-Class Relic,” for example, is both an opportunity to discuss the ongoing veneration of Saints’ relics in the church (in this case, the enshrined heart of Brother André, a Quebecois saint) and to examine the inner workings of her own heart. Other essays in the collection take on subjects like the engagement of women in the church, the phenomenon of (and response to) moving statues, the blessings of individual body parts on feast days, and musings on martyrdom and sainthood.

The issues Livingston has with the Catholic church, and watching her puzzle through them, make great fodder for the essays in this collection. Her longing for a spiritual home is often at odds with some aspect of the church as it is today, and Livingston’s own seeming reluctance regarding religion and spirituality (she struggles, for example, even to say the word God, which “sits like a fistful of rubber bands” in her mouth) usually saves the essays from reading as pious or preachy. Some of the strongest pieces are ones in which the reader can feel Livingston’s reservations grating against her intense longing for a spiritual home. She’s never not aware that returning to church is an unorthodox choice for her, writing, “Wasn’t waking early on Sunday mornings to attend the church on East Main and Prince Streets a giant step backward? Perhaps.” This honesty helps to keep these essays grounded and relatable. She’s similarly open about other conflicts too: with the child sex abuse scandals, for example, or the status of women in a church facing resolutely backwards despite a progressive-seeming pope. “These days,” she writes, “male clerics have the pulpit all to themselves, but increasingly preach to rows of empty seats.” I especially appreciated “Altar Girl” for the frankness with which she writes about how women’s involvement in the church has diminished even since her own tenure as an alter server.

On the whole, The Virgin of Prince Street is a quiet, contemplative book that would likely appeal to those who enjoy personal essays on the topics of spirituality and religion. Much of what Livingston delves into here — her deep soul searching about even having a desire to return to an institution so laden with scandal, corruption and misogyny — felt all too familiar to this lapsed Catholic. Readers interested in learning about the variety of celebrations and devotion that make up the wider church would enjoy reading this, too. That the essays in The Virgin of Prince Street keep circling back to the people of the church — both their individual experiences with spirituality and their many grassroots observances — also seems to suggest that hope in smaller communities isn’t misplaced, in spite of the cold and unmoving facade of the official church.

Share a Comment