What does the term “Rust Belt” conjure for you?
Rust itself requires steel, water, and neglect–three things gritty cities across the post-industrial landscape of America know well. With the decline of industry and population in Rust Belt cities like my native Cleveland and my mother’s native Buffalo, many of the people there have seen their Catholic churches shuttered. With the churches goes the sacred art–statues and other devotional items. Some are lost, and some (almost miraculously) are found again.
In Sonja Livingston latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the award-winning writer goes on a quest to find a missing blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood church in Rochester, New York. Her unexpected return to her home parish offers her “an occasion to travel through space and time to explore the changes in the larger Church and in her own life.”
I adored this book for its lyrical and honest portrayal of a journey of the spirit. It’s a journey relatable to spiritual seekers of all kinds–as rooted in the gritty earth as it is to the sacred. And I loved my conversation about it with Sonja and hope you do, too.
Sonja, in your Author’s Note that starts your book, you describe yourself as “astonished,” to find yourself back at your childhood church in Rochester. With all that has gone wrong with our childhood churches in the Rust Belt–and the institution of the Catholic Church–why was this journey the right one for you to take?
Great question. What we’re drawn to really matters! Our memories, dreams, obsessions, worries—these are arrows pointing to our material as writers and human beings. The trick is to trust those arrows—even and especially when they make no sense. I spent lots of time wondering why I kept returning to my old church and while I developed a few theories, the most important takeaway relates to faith. Not faith in the doctrinal sense, but faith in the raw sense. As in, not being sure about something but proceeding anyway.
For me, writing itself is a tremendous act of faith.
That said, there’s no getting around the Church’s problems. Their stance on issues of sexuality and gender, as well the abuse scandals and cover-ups, have sent people packing. When I left church in my 20s, I believed that Catholicism was either good or bad. Going back required that I blast those categories wide open. Most churches and religions are a mix of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, vulgar and holy. To get the good, I needed to put up with some of the bad—not all the bad, or the really bad, of course. Still, love and trouble often go hand and hand. You won’t see that on any greeting card but it seems to be true. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose which troubles visit us—and trouble is, by its very nature, painful. Which is a very long way of saying that this journey was about church but, even more so, about growing my heart enough to contain the mix of pain and joy inherent to all relationships.
So, the narrative thread that binds your essays of devotion together is the mystery of a missing statue of the Virgin Mary from your childhood church, “Queen of a working-class parish,” you call her. Since this is the Rust Belt Girl blog, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your home parish was like and is like now?
My family of 7 kids and a single mom moved around when I was young—from the northeast section of Rochester to rural Orleans County to an Indian Reservation near Buffalo and back again. The one thing these places had in common was poverty and as I wrote in one of the essays, my family’s one consistency was being among the poorest of families in whatever enclave of poor people we found ourselves.
Corpus Christi Church was a hub we returned to over the years—the one source of beauty of light we could count on when we lived in the city. Like many parishes in the region, it was built to accommodate immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal, in the railroads and textile factories in the late 19th century. Later, their sons and daughters and grandchildren worked production jobs at Kodak and Xerox or as secretaries and bus drivers. By the time I was on the scene (in the late-1970s and 80s), anyone who could afford to left the neighborhood which resulted in empty pews in all those old churches their grandparents had worked so hard to build.
Today, my old church is one a handful of parishes still open in Rochester’s northeast quadrant. I’m not sure how COVID will impact us as human beings in terms of spirituality and faith, but I’m guessing it will be the end for many parishes such as my own which were barely holding on before the pandemic. But for now, the church is still a place of beauty and light in my life—and one I appreciate all the more as its survival becomes more tenuous.
“What is this attachment?” to the Prince Street Virgin, you ask yourself early in your book. The importance of statues and relics and other devotional items can seem pretty strange to non-Catholics. In your essay “The Heart is a First-Class Relic,” you visit a shrine in Montreal that contains the preserved heart of a saint. In your thinking and writing—for a reader—how do you move past the foreign, strange, and even grotesque of our religion to a place that might engender more universal searching?
These essays were, in part, an attempt to explore those aspects of tradition I thought I’d outgrown or never quite understood. Whether it’s the statues at church or the bloody images of Jesus or the use of relics, I’ve come to realize that Catholic devotional practices often underscore the belief that the world is saturated with the divine. If the physical objects and elements at church—like holy water, statues, or stained glass—can be sacred, so too can things outside the building. Which is to say that some of these seemingly strange Catholic traditions are about making the sacred visible, tangible, solid, and real in people’s lives.
I hope this is relatable to people regardless of belief or background. So many of us recognize this in nature—the way the sun lights up new leaves or the pure magic of dogwood blossoms. And no matter how we explain it, often feel buoyed by such physical manifestations of beauty/holiness/light.
The Catholic religion is very much body-centered. Over most altars we see a crucified, bloodied Christ, nailed to a cross. In your writing in this book and your memoir of childhood, Ghostbread, you are very attuned to the body: from girlhood, when your body often went hungry, through adolescence to womanhood. Your reaction to returning to church is described as a feeling—not a lofty spiritual feeling, but a feeling in your body. You write: “…my body returned to a church pew as if it were an old love.” The sense of devotion as a body-centered act—do you feel that’s a bridge even non-believers can cross to understand your essays more fully?
You’re so right, Catholicism is all about the body! The celebration of the mysterious transformation of the bread to Body is the very heart of the Catholic Mass, for instance. To worship is to kneel, to stand, to sing, to cross yourself, to genuflect and bow.
Devotion is not an exercise of the head.
To participate in the Mass, at least for me, is not about “thinking” but feeling and doing. Like “losing yourself” or “falling” in love, the body seems to take over as the mind spins and second-guesses.
Regardless of how we label ourselves religiously, we humans are spiritual creatures and I hope most people will relate to the pull of the body in matters of love or hunger and possibly use it as a way to similarly understand the longing for mystery, ritual and faith.
In your inward journey of devotion, you covered a lot of actual miles—part faithful pilgrim, part objective observer. You travel to St. Brigid’s Well in Ireland, to an Orthodox Catholic celebration in Florida, to a Death and Marigold Parade in New Mexico. Is there a destination that didn’t make it into the book you’d like to describe?
A few Christmases ago, I attended a funeral at the local Catholic Worker House. I was shadowing my parish priest to write a profile and the weekly Mass he was scheduled to celebrate became a funeral service for a man whose family otherwise couldn’t afford one. This wasn’t a “big” destination—it was only a few miles from my house, in fact. But sitting there listening to the gospel choir while looking at a framed photograph of Dorothy Day and this man in his casket and meeting someone from my old neighborhood—all during the height of the holiday season—caused me to think about poverty and gifts in a new way.
Please check back for Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston–for more from this book of hers, for her take on teaching students of writing to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and for what Sonja’s writing and reading, right now.
For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/
Quotes and bio pulled from the author’s book and website.