Mimi Bull grew up in New England, the adopted daughter of an older single mother who raised her alongside her adult "sister" who she later learned was her biological mother. Mimi's memoir (now out from Bauhan Publishing) tells the story of growing up the unacknowledged child of a Catholic priest and what that meant to her as a child, her mother, and raising her own children.
Mimi talked with Rose City Reader about her new book Celibacy, a Love Story: Memoir of a Catholic Priest's Daughter:
Can you give us a little of the story about your parents, so we understand why you wrote a book about your family life?
In 1936 when I was conceived and born, my parents, a single woman and a young Polish pastor together with my maternal Grandmother made the difficult decision to keep me and raise me. It would have been far simpler for them to put me up for adoption given the web of secrets and danger of exposure they would face during that rigidly strict and judgmental time in the predominantly Irish Catholic Boston Diocese and the small town where we lived.
My grandmother and mother owned a prosperous hairdressing business. Finding work for my father, had he left the priesthood, would have been hard going in the depth of the Depression and even had they married, disgrace and shame would have driven my parents out the Boston area. I speculate here, I never knew them as my parents and could not discuss any of this with them. The book sketches our early family life but moves on to the impact on my life of finding that nothing I was told as a child was true.
What prompted you, in your 80s, to write your memoir: Celibacy, a Love Story?
I actually began the book nearly twenty years ago. It was part of my effort to integrate into my life story who my parents were, who they were as a couple and as my parents, and what they had sacrificed to keep and raise me. I needed to think my way into the reality of what they had experienced, to understand their relationship, and to root myself in the truth rather than the web of protective lies necessitated by how they were constrained to live their lives. I wrote it for my family initially and began to see the impact of the unusual story on my fellow writers who encouraged me to speak out to a larger audience. There are universal themes of secrets, depression, marriage, the importance of claiming one’s roots, one’s identity.
What was your relationship like with the man you later learned was your father?
My father was a consistent part of my life until his sudden death at 48 at the end of my freshman year in college. He was like a loving uncle who lived nearby. We were members of his Polish parish. He came to dinner at our home every one or two weeks. I spent a lot of time with him after school, during trips to Boston, and at his fishing camp. He was my “guardian,” my parish priest, my teacher and disciplinarian.
There is more awareness of the many children, like yourself, fathered by Catholic priests. How has the Catholic Church responded to these revelations?
In the 900-year history of required celibacy for its clergy, there was in Canon Law (which governs all aspects of the Catholic Church) nothing to guide bishops dealing with priests who had children. Only in the last year have as-yet-secret guidelines been formulated. It came about with the addition of children of priests to the Office of the Welfare of Children, along with victims of abuse by priests. Meanwhile, the conservative estimate of the worldwide number of children of priests today is 44,000.
You mention Coping International in your book. Can you tell us a little about that organization? Are there other organizations for children of priests?
Coping International was founded in Ireland by a child of a priest, a psychotherapist who had himself studied in Spain for the priesthood. He felt the need for a center for children of priests to “meet” online and share their stories, thereby being aware that there are so many others like them. Coping is also a clearing house of information, a voice, a lobby for issues that affect this community. It was instrumental, for example, in pushing for inclusion of priest’s children in the Vatican’s Office of the Welfare of Children. If there are other such organizations, I am as yet unaware of them.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
Readers dealing with difficult issues in their life and looking for an example of a search for self-knowledge. Celibacy: A Love Story, is as yet an unusual story. People who are drawn to odd tales will like it. I am surprised by the response of younger readers in their 20s and 30s who have written me in detail about grappling with identity issues that resonated with them in my book. While it has primarily been women who have written, there are many sons of priests and men in general who experience the secrecy, shame, or separation from a parent, among other issues, who would find much that is familiar in this book.
THANK YOU, MIMI!
CELIBACY, A LOVE STORY IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.
If Mimi's memoir sounds good, Bauhan Publishing has a couple of other new books out this fall that may also appeal to you:
Someday this Will Fit: Linked Essays, Meditations & Other Midlife Follies by Joan Silverman, a collection of "bite-sized narratives" that evoke the richness and humor of daily life.
From the Midway: Unfolding Stories of Redemption and Belonging by Leaf Seligman, linked short stories depicting the lives of sideshow oddities in an early twentieth-century carnival traveling through the rural south.