Born in the 1930s, a time when unmarried pregnant women were whisked off in secrecy and their babies given away, Mimi Bull grew up believing she’d been adopted by two women, a mother and daughter. Not until she was a mother herself did she learn that those adoptive parents were her blood relatives—her grandmother and her mother.
It would be another dozen-plus years before she discovered the identity of her father: the Catholic priest she’d known as a close family friend. The stories she’d been told in childhood had been concocted to hide her biological father’s broken vow of celibacy and shield her mother from the disgrace of unwed pregnancy.
In this moving memoir, Bull writes lovingly of her parents and of their extraordinary efforts to forge a life as a family while keeping these enormous secrets. Yet she also reveals the toll that secrecy took on her—evidenced in large part by her lifelong struggle with depression and a yearning to understand who she was and where she belonged.
Even after learning the truth of her parentage, Bull spent years trying to find someone outside her family who would believe her story and offer support. The Boston archdiocese was virtually silent. When she turned eighty, she finally spoke to someone with a similar life story: an Irishman who learned as an adult that his godfather, a local priest, was really his biological father. It was the first time she had ever talked with another priest’s child.
Making that connection was momentous. “I had tried to find others—like an orphan looking for one’s lost tribe,” she writes. Historic deference to the clergy, particularly in the Boston area where Bull was raised, has kept people from speaking out. But other children of priests are beginning to come forward and discovering how much company they have. Virtually all of them share one thing: a feeling that their stories have been kept in the shadows too long.
Celibacy—A Love Story is a tender but honest portrayal of the complicated and painful aftereffects of secrecy. It’s also a call for action from the Roman Catholic Church. Bull ends her memoir with a candid letter to Pope Francis, stating, “Just as the secrecy deprived me of feeling a part of either my mother or father’s family . . . so the secrecy and shame has kept priests’ children from the comfort and support of knowing one another. . . . The Church . . . swept us all under the rug to save its reputation. It never considered the human fallout from its failure to acknowledge us, the blameless children, much less offer compassion for our plight.”
Mimi Bull, a native New Englander, raised her three children as a headmaster’s wife at schools in Istanbul; Vienna; Sedona, Arizona; and San Antonio, Texas. Her professional life included arts administration; and research assistance to scholar diplomat, George Kennan, and architect and environmental planner, Victor Gruen. In her fifties she received a master’s degree in counseling, with a concentration in geriatrics. She makes her home in the Monadnock region of southern New Hampshire.