New essay collection by VCU English professor explores journey with Catholicism

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Sonja Livingston
Sonja Livingston

Sonja Livingston, an award-winning essayist and associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has authored a new collection of essays, “The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion,” (University of Nebraska Press) that chronicles her relationship with the Catholic Church.

“With organized religion becoming increasingly divisive and politicized and Americans abandoning their pews in droves, it’s easy to question aspects of traditional spirituality and devotion,” according to the publisher’s description of “The Virgin of Prince Street.” “In response to this shifting landscape, Sonja Livingston undertakes a variety of expeditions — from a mobile confessional in Cajun Country to a eucharistic procession in Galway, Ireland, to the Death and Marigolds Parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Mass in a county jail on Thanksgiving Day — to better understand devotion in her own life.”

Livingston grew up Catholic, but stopped regularly attending church in her 20s, returning to Mass only for holidays, weddings or funerals. A few years back, however, she returned to her childhood church and was struck by how few people were there.

“The fixtures were worn and the priest split his time between several churches. In other words, the church was not how I had left it, and its very survival seemed precarious. In fact, most Catholic churches in the inner-city neighborhood had already closed. I realized suddenly that I wanted my old church to survive, but also wondered why I should be so concerned — especially in light of ongoing scandals and very real problems of the larger church,” she said. “This book of essays is my attempt to explore those questions and competing tensions.”

Book cover of "The Virgin of Prince Street." Expeditions into devotion. Sonja Livingston. American lives series. Tobias Wolfe, editor.
"The Virgin of Prince Street" cover.

Livingston said she hopes all readers will relate to her story.

“I hope readers will connect with the subjects of tradition and devotion and their role in our lives, no matter their source. I also hope readers will begin to engage with the topic of religion with greater nuance than the simplified categories into which the subject is so often cast. I still have many misgivings, and don’t consider myself an especially good Catholic, but have been greatly enriched by my return to church and the various expeditions I undertook,” she said. “You don’t have to be Catholic (lapsed or otherwise) to relate to this book!”

“The Virgin of Prince Street” is Livingston’s fourth book. Her previous works include “Ladies’ Night at the Dreamland” (University of Georgia Press, 2016); “Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses” (University of Nebraska Press, 2015); and “Ghostbread” (University of Georgia Press, 2009).