TOUSSAINT: A Biography, by Arthur Jones. Doubleday.
326 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, assistant managing editor
of St. Anthony Messenger.
WRITING A SAINT’S STORY as biography rather than hagiography
is a genuine service. Arthur Jones has exercised a lot of
self-control for a Catholic. He’s written about Pierre Toussaint
(1781-1853), a candidate for sainthood, as though Toussaint
were the reader’s peer.
Pierre Toussaint, this reader must admit, doesn’t appear
to have any flaws (occasionally, he responded strongly to
racism, but surely that’s no flaw), so he isn’t entirely my
peer. Still, he does lead a life nuanced with ups and downs,
adventures and humdrum everydayness. I prefer saints like
this—neither flogging themselves till they bleed nor so enraptured
by visions that they float.
Because I’ve read what Arthur Jones calls the “bedrock” material
(Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee’s Memoir of Pierre Toussaint,
1854), Toussaint’s life story was no surprise to me. But Jones’s
book provides a thorough historical context for Toussaint’s
life in Santo Domingo (then a French West Indian colony, which
the author usually calls Saint Dominque).
Jones also creates a lively context for Toussaint’s life
in New York, which gave me an enriched perspective on Toussaint’s
milieu in this nation. (I hadn’t known, for instance, that
New York City was the nation’s capital in 1789-1790. Nor had
I fathomed the extent of northern racism.)
Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery and came to New York
as a slave. His employer/owner, Marie Elizabeth Bérard, freed
him only on her deathbed, even though Toussaint actually supported
her from her widowhood in 1801 to her death in 1807. And he
did this behind the scenes, so as not to embarrass her sense
of dignity, it would appear.
In New York, he learned the trade of a hairdresser and was
sought after by society women. In his day, hair stylists did
their magic in the homes of their clients. Pierre Toussaint
worked in some very high-class households.
I have certainly attributed more than one miracle to women
and men who have wielded scissors, combs, curling irons and
magical foams and sprays around my head. But to think that
a man whose profession was styling hair was so good a human
being that he’s now a candidate for sainthood stirs me deeply.
If hair stylists can be saints, after all, can editors and
book reviewers be far behind? I’m edified, encouraged and
strengthened by further proof that sanctity is open to us
all—even if we’re married, as was Toussaint.
Toussaint was first a slave, then a free man. Jones writes,
in both conditions, “There was nothing servile about him.”
Both his youthful wife, Juliette, and his adopted daughter,
Euphemie, preceded him in death. He was a generous philanthropist
to individuals and to Church institutions. He risked his life
tending neglected yellow-fever patients in New York. That’s
as exciting as it gets.
It does excite me—and it moved Arthur Jones, his biographer
to mainstream America. Jones wrote 323 pages. He apparently
read Euphemie’s charming collection of notes in French to
her stepfather. Jones’s approach is objective, historical
and detached. When he’s speculating, he says so.
He wasn’t as careful with sources as I would have liked.
Footnotes can put readers off, but to say that “quoted
and paraphrased” historical context about Toussaint’s boyhood
in Santo Domingo came from one of two books, unless otherwise
noted, felt a bit cavalier.
I believe the work of Arthur Jones will serve well to introduce
Pierre Toussaint to a wider audience. It probably won’t be
long before we, like some of Toussaint’s own contemporaries,
can call him “saint.” And I suspect St. Martin de Porres will
have to share his assignment as patron saint of hair stylists.
I’m already invoking Pierre Toussaint’s assistance on bad-hair
You can order PIERRE TOUSSAINT: A Biography from
St. Francis Bookshop.
MIRACLE FOR ST. CECILIA'S, by Katherine Valentine.
Viking. 278 pp. $23.95.
Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian
and member of the St. Anthony Messenger Press Advisory Board.
THE PUBLICATION of A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s is
a miracle in itself. Viking Books has released a thoroughly
Catholic novel, peopled with delightful characters mostly
living in harmony with each other, although there are a few
run-ins between the Catholics and members of the Congregationalist
church. The sole villain is the bishop of the diocese! There
are no sordid sexual episodes, no bad language and no renegade
priests. But there are deep faith, broad humor and believable
St. Cecilia’s Parish is in Dorsetville, a small New England
town that has fallen on hard financial times due to the closing
of the woolen mills which were its chief employers. Father
James Flaherty, the middle-aged pastor, has been given three
years to attempt a turnaround but, while deeply bonding with
the 100 or fewer families remaining, has been unable to attain
The bishop has decreed that the parish is to close on Easter
Sunday. The story begins on Ash Wednesday with the introduction
of the main characters: the pastor, an aged Irish priest who
founded the parish, their very opinionated housekeeper, five
elderly men and women who are daily Mass attendees, a suspended
high school student, the Petersons, an aged Jewish man, the
heating contractor/fire marshal and the sheriff.
Although the last three characters are non-Catholic, all
are aware of the vital role the Church plays in the community
and are adamant about saving St. Cecilia’s. How this comes
about with both human and divine intervention provides the
plot of the novel.
Mrs. Valentine’s prose is light and breezy with a liberal
use of dialogue. She excels in having characters exemplify
their faith by living it rather than preaching it.
Here is a description of Harriet Bedford’s prayer ministry:
“She kept a small brown leather prayer journal, easily fitted
inside her purse or an apron pocket, filled with the hundreds
of prayer requests she had received through the years. Written
on its ruled lines were petitions for renewed health, better
jobs, financial assistance or the myriad needs people encountered
along life’s way. People asked her to pray, not because her
prayers were more powerful than theirs, but to help them uphold
those prayers before God’s throne, as Aaron once had held
up Moses’ arms as the battles raged. And so she prayed.”
Bob and Lori Peterson exemplify patient acceptance of God’s
will as they await a bone-marrow match. Less successful is
a longish exercise in apologetics that Father Flaherty delivers
to a fallen-away Catholic in intensive care who manages to
ask the right questions and accept forgiveness just in the
nick of time.
A few errors in Catholic practices are present, such as complete
fasting from food until sundown on Good Friday, disregarding
the law of abstinence on Ash Wednesday and having a contemporary
priest remain for 40 years in one parish. But these are small
failings in a wholesome, easily readable book which can be
enjoyed by virtually any reader.
An American folk artist experiencing physical and financial
problems of her own, Katherine Valentine acknowledges at the
conclusion of this first novel that: “...God sent me the idea
for this book and the assurance that its sale would abundantly
answer my prayer.”
Similar to the best-selling fictional series by Jan Karon
that is set in Mitford, North Carolina, and features an Episcopal
priest, A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s is to be the first
of a series of books, presumably utilizing the same Connecticut
setting and characters. May this and future books be as popular!
I highly recommend this novel as light reading for all ages.
You can order A MIRACLE FOR ST. CECILIA'S from
St. Francis Bookshop.
GEOMETRY OF LOVE: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an
Ordinary Church, by Margaret Visser. North Point
Press. 320 pp. $14.
Reviewed by JULIE S. DONATI, a Catholic school teacher
who lives in Sugar Land, Texas. She is married to Marcello
and has three children—ages 11, nine and a toddler. She is
working on her M.A. in theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in
AT FIRST GLANCE, it might seem a formidable task to write
over 260 pages describing an “ordinary” church (as if any
church building in Rome can be ordinary!). Yet that is exactly
what Margaret Visser accomplishes in her latest book, The
Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an
Ordinary Church—this, and so much more in a detailed and
highly informative blend of history, theology and architecture.
Her intent is to “...give readers an inkling of the spiritual,
cultural, and historical riches that any church offers.” Visser,
a cultural anthropologist and an award-winning author, has
written an account of the meanings, culture and history that
are embodied in a single, “ordinary” church.
She chose Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura (outside the walls) in
Rome, not a grandiose church yet one replete with history.
Built in honor of St. Agnes, who was stabbed to death for
her refusal to marry the son of a Roman prefect, the church
was begun in the seventh century and continuously modified
Visser takes us through the entire church, including the
catacombs resting underneath, in an exploration of detailed
proportions. Intended for a general audience, the book is
so exquisitely researched that readers of any background will
profit from it.
Proceeding through the building and its grounds, Visser takes
us on a voyage in time, smoothly switching between the particular
and concrete features of St. Agnes to the general. Thus, she
describes not only the relics of St. Agnes, including how
they came to reside there, but also the historical development
of relics in general.
The spiritual aspect is beautifully interwoven when Visser
frequently explores the spiritual significance of parts of
the church as seemingly mundane as the central aisle. She
moves deftly from Latin to early Church history, to biblical
exegesis, to architectural development, to spiritual practice.
The church jumps out at us, bigger than life. My only complaint
would be that I desired to see some visuals—a written layout,
or perhaps even some photos, of this gloriously detailed church.
Perfect for someone traveling to Rome, The Geometry of Love is meant to be not just a tourist guide but also
a meditation on all that a church can offer to us, to our
senses, to our spiritual life.
A church is more than the building in which a community gathers
to worship together. It is a place to reflect on the great
history of the Catholic Church, the richness and depth of
all its traditions, a history which Visser successfully helps
us appreciate as Catholics.
You can order THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE: Space, Time, Mystery,
and Meaning in an Ordinary Church from St.
WISDOM OF TENDERNESS: What Happens When God's Fierce Mercy
Transforms Our Lives, by Brendan Manning. HarperSanFrancisco.
179 pp. $21.95.
Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE,
D.MIN., a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit
for 26 years on special assignment as a licensed psychotherapist
and founder of Cura Animarum/Cure of the Soul. A longtime religion writer for The Detroit News, he recently wrote
A Pearl a Day: Wise Sayings for Living Well (Jeremiah Press),
the edited notes of his boyhood pastor, the Rev. Edward D.
LIVE IN GOD’S tender mercy, says Brennan Manning in The
Wisdom of Tenderness. Manning is also the author of Ragamuffin
Gospel and 11 other books.
When one experiences God’s love, one knows real peace, the
author assures the reader. One is home then, in grace and
From the author’s own woes as an alcoholic to his mystical
meeting with the fatherly Mephisto, the reader is swooped
up into Manning’s eventual encounter with tenderness and mercy’s
transforming ways. Here emerges a changed heart and mind.
The key to unlocking the door to God’s awesome mercy is the
mind of Christ, Manning says in the seventh chapter, a treatise
on forgiveness, reverence and compassion.
In the final pages, he says: “Imagination focused on Jesus
and anchored in his Word liberates us from the tyranny of
the existing arrangement; unglues us from the stuckness of
the status quo; unlocks closed doors so that we can look anew
at Torah, Christ, Church, and cosmos; implies that I can be
more than I am at any given moment; and promises that the
epitaph on my tombstone will read more than, ‘He muttered
his prayers, mowed his lawn, and lost a thousand golf balls.’”
Tenderness has vanished, Manning complains. The freedom of
Christ has been obscured. Calling for a mentor for each member
of the Church,Manning proposes that the Church raise its bar
for membership, while encouraging a system of support.
In the spirit of the now 40-year-old Vatican II and its renewal,
Manning musters the courage to be fear-free, suggesting growth
from the inside out.
Sin is the enemy of tenderness for Manning. And, as a practitioner
of the 12-step spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, Manning
knows that his culture’s “best” thinking got us to this place
of disarray. A tender examination of conscience (Step 4) is
where Manning’s transition started.
Quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, Manning tells the reader
that, even from a person’s sins, God has drawn good. To love
one’s whole story is living in tenderness.
In his 40 years of pastoral experience, Manning reluctantly
confesses how he has “observed disciples of Jesus badger,
bully and bludgeon themselves into earning God’s mercy.” Just
accept it, he seems to shout.
In the middle of the media’s obsession with singling out
Catholic priests and abuse of power, I needed the soothing
salve of this seasoned pilgrim. He helped heal this fractured
You can order THE WISDOM OF TENDERNESS: What Happens
When God's Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives from St.
SOMEONE YOU LOVE DRINKS TOO MUCH, by William F.
Kraft, Ph.D. Servant Publications. 200 pp. $11.95.
Reviewed by JAMES VAN VURST, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest
and pastoral counselor.
THERE’S NO QUESTION that alcoholism is a major problem in
the United States. Current estimates are that 14 million adults
(1 in every 13) are alcoholics or problem drinkers, which
translates to nearly a tenth of the U.S. population! This
is not even counting adolescent alcohol abuse, which we know
is growing rampantly in high schools and colleges.
William F. Kraft, Ph.D., the author of eight books on alcoholism,
spirituality and spiritual growth, has written a book with
primary focus on the attitudes and behavior of those who are
involved with drinkers.
The author begins by listing some basic alcoholic patterns
such as the “ticking time bomb, the closet drinker, the polished
drinker and the borderline drinker.” The descriptions are
such that anyone who is in conflict with a problem drinker
will probably exclaim, “Yes, that sounds just like him [or
While the book is filled with information about the alcoholic
and problem drinker, however, Kraft is always speaking to
the loved one or the person facing daily painful interactions
with the drinker. The readers are challenged again and again
to face their own behavior rather than that of the alcoholic
with whom they live.
The difficult truth is simply that we cannot change the problem drinker. We can only change ourselves.
More often than one realizes, it is the family member who
unconsciously encourages or enables the drinker to continue.
Kraft emphasizes the best way to deal with the alcoholic
is to face one’s own issues and one’s relationship with God.
He doesn’t do this in any blaming sort of way, however.
On the contrary, Kraft knows that spouses and children are
often paralyzed by the situations they face every day. So
often the suffering family members sabotage their own growth
and health while experiencing the terrible tension and frustration
of daily living with an alcohol abuser.
Kraft supports and encourages the readers with specific directions
in order to face themselves and the issues.
Kraft gives some clear and realistic advice to make some
changes in oneself. It involves reading, prayer or prayer
groups or counseling. There’s no magic in the hard work of
If the person works to change himself or herself (and it
is hard work), change can paradoxically take place in the
other person. How? It’s the mysterious power of relationship
where healing can take place.
All through the book, the person of faith is reminded that
there is a source of strength available from one’s relationship
with God. A theologically solid chapter on forgiveness points
out how many false and self-defeating ideas people have about
what it means to forgive.
Kraft emphasizes that, without a realization of God’s help,
the person will indeed experience powerlessness. A deep and
lively faith in God allows for possibilities and hopes that
otherwise would be more like daydreams and wishful thinking.
The person, understanding God’s presence in his or her life,
need not feel isolated and, in fact, is not isolated. God’s
presence and strength become real.
The author also deals with problem drinking among teenagers
as well as adults and spouses.
The last chapter treats the issue of “Now what?” when the
alcoholic has stopped drinking.
“In the end, recovery from alcoholism (for ourselves or our
loved ones) is not a state or condition but more a process
of imperfectly and only gradually growing in perfection.”
You can order WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE DRINKS TOO MUCH
from St. Francis