Saint Training
discussion guide
for book clubs
and classrooms
  Saint Training  
is a humorous middle–grade novel. Mary Clare O'Brian thinks that her bargain with God—to become a saint if He'll make her family happy—will result in a miracle.
But with a war in Vietnam, race riots in the city, the Catholic Church turning cartwheels, and too much responsibility at home, miracles seem to be in short supply. Even on a good hair day.
Elizabeth's writerly vision is powerful and—this is an important word for me—attentive. The writer looks at the world and, paradoxically, uses the world to make sense of the world. This is Elizabeth. In her novel Saint Training, she is charting the course of a human soul. She is looking at the way someone becomes most truly herself, finding that that course is not easy, straight, or expected.
starred reviewIngenuity, keen observational skills, and compassion grant this feisty protagonist growing insight into the complex choices faced by those she loves, as well as her own character and calling.
Smartly delineated in part through letters to a nun, Mary Clare is wonderfully realized, and readers will find themselves pulling hard for her as she tries to do her best.
Behind the Story
What's Real and What's Not in Saint Training?
Saint Training is an example of term paper format. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all fiction. I drew from childhood experiences to write it, making it loosely autobiographical but through the lenses of a storyteller. Most of the characters are fictional, especially Mary Clare’s classmates, teachers, neighbors, Saint Mary Magdalene Convent, and Mother Monica. But there really is an order of Good Shepherd nuns, some of whom have historically worked with unwed mothers and their babies. What the reader can count on to be real are the historical events and social milieu of the era.
The year 1967 was a tumultuous time in the United States. We were embroiled in an unpopular and, many felt, unjustifiable war in Vietnam. Young men were drafted by the thousands and people protested in the streets. Some draftees burned their draft cards or moved to Canada to avoid serving in a war they thought was wrong. Others, who opposed the war, like Matthew, applied for CO status, which meant they could do government assigned work instead of serving in the military.
The Civil Rights movement was  in full force as well. The Milwaukee riots were real. Father Groppi and Archbishop Cousins were real people. Father James Groppi (1930-1985), a priest at St. Boniface parish on the north side of Milwaukee in 1967, was renowned for his zealous crusading for Civil Rights. His involvement with the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama brought attention to the priest, but it was his tireless work against social injustices in Milwaukee that made him famous. He became an advisor for the NAACP, and organized protests against segregation in Milwaukee public schools and marches for fair housing. The 16th Street viaduct in Milwaukee was considered the division between the north and south side, and was the site of daily marches in 1967. Later it was made an historical landmark and renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge.
The attention Father Groppi brought to the Catholic Church placed the Archbishop of the Milwaukee diocese, Archbishop Cousins, in the difficult position of having to take a stand on the Civil Rights movement and the increasing involvement of nuns and priests in protests. He met the challenge in August, 1967 when he gave his speech Christian Conscience and Community In Crisis, in which he declared that it was:
“the sacred duty of the faithful, the priests, and the Religious of our time and of our archdiocese to root out of their hearts and to free their communities of any prejudice that would make men anti-Jewish, anti-Negro, anti-Mexican, or anti anything else that would render them anti-Christian in practice.”
The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was responsible for much of the confusion in the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had called the council of bishops to convene for spiritual renewal of the Church and to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world.
The sessions began in 1962 and ended in 1965, but the effects of the council’s decisions had only recently begun to show in the Church: the Mass was changed from Latin to English (or whatever language the people in the parish spoke), the liturgy changed, and laypersons were called to participate more in the Mass. The altar was turned around so that the priest faced the people. People receiving Communion no longer knelt at rails and received the wafers on their tongues,  the host was now placed into the open handof the recipient.
Priests like Father Groppi began incorporating more contemporary music into the Mass. The Church improved its relationship with non-Christian religions, and Christians of other faiths. And the council opened the door for sweeping changes in Religious orders. Like Mother Monica and Sister Charlotte, nuns began altering their habits. As convents took a good look at themselves and their traditions, many nuns chose to leave the convent altogether.
The teaching style in Catholic schools also changed. The authoritarian Baltimore Catechism, which had been a staple in Catholic schools for years, was tossed out, and the idea that God is to be feared was replaced by a more accepting, often permissive attitude that stressed a loving God.
The women’s movement in 1967 was also very real, and in its early stages. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) sent shockwaves throughout America while it struck a deep chord in the hearts of women by giving voice to genuine concerns. My mother did return to school and work in the 1960’s while parenting ten children. And, like Mary Clare’s mother, she had to endure the judgment of people who felt that a women’s place was in the home.
The sixties were tough. They were not only confusing, but frightening. And the call to “question authority” had a profound effect on every kind of authority - from government, police, and church to physicians, and teachers. The movement forced us to take greater responsibility for our own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Though many longed for the security of having the world interpreted for them, the overall effect of this change, is greater personal power and freedom.
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