Viga Boland reviews A SAINT AND A SINNER, a memoir by Father Stephen H D...

A Saint and a Sinner

The Rise and Fall of a Beloved Catholic Priest

by Stephen Donnelly with Diane O'Bryan

What I’m about to tell you has little to do with the content and intentions of the authors of A Saint and a Sinner, the biography of a Catholic priest, Father Stephen Donnelly. It has everything to do with what I felt as I read the last few pages of this courageous memoir: I was overcome with a profound sadness that a man who’d fought so hard to win control over his various addictions, and was helping so many people, made one more bad mistake. That slip-up resulted in his excommunication from the Catholic Church.

In his honest and raw memoir, Stephen Donnelly shares details of his less than idyllic upbringing that resulted in his decision to become a priest. His great love of God, coupled with his genuine desire to serve God’s people, qualified him for the priesthood but...and it’s a big “but”...he was addicted to cocaine and eventually, alcohol. Worse yet, being celibate wasn’t possible as he was deeply in love with Camilla. Their secret relationship lasted 7 years until Stephen fell in love with Anna. Honestly, Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t write a more eye-opening film script. 

But A Saint and A Sinner is no fiction movie. What Stephen, and other priests like him experience, is a most difficult, sometimes ugly reality: the priesthood is a lonely and demanding vocation. Growing up Catholic, how well I remember being in awe of, and just a little afraid of priests. But as an adult, I found it almost preposterous that young men, in their prime, were denied the right to sexual relationships. Over the years I often wondered how they managed the self-denial. Well, Donnelly’s memoir sheds much light on the real difficulties priests endure. Though Donnelly himself, thankfully, was not part of the paedophilia exposed in the film, “Spotlight”, he certainly earned his “sinner” title. But the moniker he earned, and deserves far more, is the second half of the book’s title: he is a saint.

I feel sure that if I were one of his parishioners, seeing all the good he did to help others recover from addictions, the dedication he brought to his duties, and the genuine love he continues to have for his vocation and Church, I would forgive him for all those sins. As for what got him excommunicated, well, you will have to read A Saint and A Sinner to find out. 

This memoir is beautifully executed, fast-paced with lots of realistic dialogue, and characters to whom you can readily relate and whom you will not easily forget. My own memoir dealt with a very sensitive subject, but I wasn’t someone in the public eye, known to hundreds, perhaps thousands of worshipping parishioners. What stays with me most is the courage it must have taken to write this memoir. Hats off to you Father Stephen Donnelly. You’re my kind of saintly sinner and the world could use many more like you.

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