A Saint and a Sinner by Stephen H. Donnelly with Diane O’Bryan

This review is published on Goodreads.

I have to admit my initial trepidation to read this book. Knowing it was the memoir of a priest, my thinking was that the narrative would not be relatable because I follow a different faith. I am glad I did not allow my concerns to stop me. The underlying themes are not only relatable but integral to our everyday lives on a conscious or subconscious level; mortal imperfection, remorse and forgiveness woven into the folds of the inescapable truth that our childhood experiences leave their mark on our core through adulthood.

Donnelly’s story is set against the backdrop of far-reaching historical events, including 9/11, rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, disclosure of child abuse by clergy, and the tragedy of opioid addiction. The journey begins in the 1950s and ends in 2018. The setting is primarily Long Island, New York. In vivid detail, Donnelly describes his family trauma and winding road through priesthood, duplicity, infidelity, addiction, recovery, regression, reverence and enlightenment.

A hint of the inevitable is in the author’s reflection in the beginning, “As a young child, I realized that if I presented myself as perfect – caring, generous, understanding and compliant – then I could control how people felt about me. At all costs, I wanted to be loved!” In later years, a psychologist put this in perspective when she said, “your father’s rejection of you and your family at such an impressionable age imprinted the fear of rejection and the need to be seen as perfect in everyone else’s eyes.” I felt the exigency at each turn of events, internalizing his pain, seeing the red flags up ahead and wanting to magically transmit a warning through the pages: Beware!

Donnelly overcame gargantuan hurdles and evolved into a reverend priest and friend that deeply touched countless lives. When parishioners, friends and family outwardly acknowledged and celebrated his accomplishments, I wondered why the book did not end there. The fact that there was more to unravel took me by surprise. This book does not have a fairy-tale ending. My impression is that this memoir is meant to be thought provoking, daring readers to consider what haunts us, what we are capable of and, albeit some sins are untenable for some, why we should withhold judgment. I think most readers would agree the author has accomplished that.