Art Breen was just a baby when, in 1951, his father abandoned him and his mother. She struggled to care for herself and her son, but Father Fergus came to their aid, driving them places and taking them grocery shopping each week. Eventually she was remarried to Ted McGann, a drinker with a bad temper, and had two more children, Sheila and Mike. Sheila observes that back in those days “nobody used the idiotic term blended family.” Rather, they were “two distinct families, unblended, the one simply grafted onto the other.” Still, Sheila and Mike never referred to Art as their “half-brother.” He was, simply, their brother.
Theirs was a quintessential Irish-Catholic family. They attended Catholic schools, participated in church activities. Mike became a cop and then segued into a successful real estate career. Married to a lawyer, he is the father of three young boys. Sheila moved away from home and the church, and has enjoyed a teaching career.
But Art not only remained steadfast in his Catholicism, he became a priest. It is 2002, and Art is serving the Sacred Heart parish in suburban Boston. The faithful rectory housekeeper, Fran, is a companion and friend to him. Fran’s daughter, Kath Conlon, has returned home with her eight-year-old son, Aidan, after living in California for several years. Kath has a history of substance abuse, but claims to be clean and sober now. Art is protective of Fran and does not want to see her hurt. He also finds himself caring more and more deeply for both Kath and Aidan.
On Good Friday, with no warning, Art is summoned to the Boston Archdiocese and advised that he is being relieved of all of his duties. On paid leave, an apartment has been rented for him — he is to leave church property immediately. All he knows is that the Archdiocese received a letter the previous day. He is not told the name of his accuser or what misconduct he is alleged to have engaged in. He is told only that he will be served with papers.
How well do you know your family members? Are you sure that you know what they believe in, what matters most to them? Are you confident in your belief that there are certain things they would never do, certain repulsive acts that they could never commit? Do you think they have secrets? If so, what kind?
In Faith, author Jennifer Haigh compels readers to ask themselves those and many more questions, as narrator Sheila McGann returns to her childhood home and attempts to uncover the truth about her brother’s life and relationships. Set at the height of the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church a few years ago, Faith is an exploration of one man’s journey from adulthood to the priesthood — the things he experienced, the things he gave up, his understanding of himself and his own capacity to love and be loved, and the profound manner in which he impacted those who loved him, as well as those who dared accuse him.
Eventually, Art learns that he has been accused by Kath Conlon of inappropriate behavior with Aidan. When his family members learn of the allegation — and Art becomes front-page news — their reactions are disparate. His mother does not believe that Art could possibly be guilty, of course, and will stand by him through the ordeal, convinced that he will be vindicated and return to serving the church. Ted McGann, a victim of his own history of hard-drinking, is no longer cognizant of everyday reality. He watches television, but is unaware of what is happening around him.
Sooner or later, you have to decide what you believe. It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice.~ Sheila McGann, the narrator in Faith
Mike, a tough former copy turned realtor, is, on the surface, at least, repulsed by the allegation and refuses to have anything to do with Art, appearing to try and convict him solely on the basis of the claim advanced. His attitude creates conflict between him and Sheila. An accidental encounter with Kath Conlon inspires him to put his detective skills to work — for his own satisfaction, if not necessarily to clear Art’s name. He embarks on a risky course of conduct that could cause him to lose everything he holds dear, including his wife, their children, and the happy home they have built. The accusation leveled against Art also widens the schism between him and his wife, a Lutheran who agreed to have her children raised in the Catholic faith, on the subject of religion. Up to this point, she has lived up to her promise, attending church with Mike and the boys. But the magnitude of the scandal, coupled with the fact that it has now touched their family, is too much for her to tolerate. As their son prepares to receive Holy Communion for the first time, she refuses to ever set foot in another Catholic church, causing Mike’s anger, frustration, and pain to escalate. Will his plan lead him to the truth about Art and his relationship with Aidan? Or will it simply bring more heartbreak to the Breen/McGann family?
Sheila left the church — and the Boston area — years ago, but she returns to support Art, as well as her mother. Initially, she is convinced of Art’s innocence and appalled by Mike’s doubts. Unlike Mike, Sheila reaches out to Art, helping him move his belongings out of the rectory and into his new apartment. Items she discovers there while packing for Art cause her to ask more questions about Art’s history with Kath and Aidan, but Sheila struggles to remain steadfast in her faith in Art as she follows a series of clues that eventually lead her to the whole, shocking truth.
Haigh skillfully takes her readers along with Sheila on her journey of discovery, revealing Art’s story bit by bit, page by page with exquisitely timed tension and intrigue. Each new piece of information not only leads to more data, but also inspires a whole new set of questions. Faith reads like a compelling detective or true crime novel. Never losing sight of the heinous nature of the crime Art is alleged to have committed or the seemingly endless wave of headlines announcing the lawsuits filed and allegations made against Catholic priests across the country, Haigh simultaneously explores the possibility that Art — a gentle, naive, and socially inept man — might also be a victim. The tragic truth is that, guilty or innocent, Art’s life — and the lives of his family members — is forever changed because of the accusation, and he will never be able to resume his previously peaceful, quiet life of service.
Faith is an eloquent and insightful consideration of what it means to be steadfast and faithful to oneself, one’s beliefs, one’s church. It is a heartbreaking and poignant story about a man who has never been fully known or understood by anyone — not even those who love him the most — until their faith in him and his inherent goodness is put to the ultimate test. Faith examines the power of a single allegation, whether well-founded or not, to change not just one life, but the lives of many, and will leave readers pondering what things they choose to have faith in long after they have finished reading the story of Father Art Breen and his family. Haigh is a first-class storyteller with an intelligent, probing, and thought-provoking writing style.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Faith free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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