A Blue Boy in a Black Dress: A Memoir



The award-winning memoir that Mark Abley called “a Canadian classic,” A Blue Boy in a Black Dress is a college teacher's look back on the five years he spent in seminaries studying to be a Catholic priest in the 1960s (and further, to the childhood that led to seminary doors). But it's also a look forward to the fate of organised religion in the twenty-first century. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Hugo Meynell noted: “All in all, this is an amazing book, shrewd, sensitive, and beautifully written. I hope that it will be widely read by those who wonder what the religious future will bring. One may perhaps still hold, in spite of the author, that there is something worth retaining under all the malpractice, hypocrisy, and power-mongering which continue to disfigure the Roman Catholic Church, but to go on believing so certainly requires the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.”

Chapter One

The enduring paradox of religion is that so much of its substance is demonstrably false, yet it remains a driving force in all societies.
- Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology

Human nature is nature enough. - John Updike

When I decided to kill myself late in the winter of 1967, I wanted it to look like an accident. So no suicide note nor much mess. I was calm and level-headed about it. I wasn't angry at anybody. I spent a few minutes tidying up my room a little, just a little. No sudden departures, no quick changes. I left books and papers scattered every which way on my desk as they always were, as if I had every intention of returning but I scooped up all the poems I'd been writing about death and stuffed them into an envelope together with a few very personal souvenirs I didn't want the authorities to find and return to my family. I left my bank book and important personal papers in a clearly visible place, emptied the overflowing ashtray, and made my bed. Then I showered and shaved. A guy who ran the folk and blues club in downtown Ottawa where I spent many of my Saturday nights called me “Bond,” as in James Bond, more for my clothes than the body inside and the nickname stuck with some of my friends. I had a closet full of fine clothes - perks from summer jobs as a salesman in a department store. That day, I dressed in my favourite black suit which I'd had made-to-measure - a sharply pressed very fashionable number with a high three-button front, narrow lapels, side vents, stovepipe trousers - a grey and white pinstripe shirt, a black knit tie. I pulled on my ankle high black suede Beatle boots: I could slide a mile on ice in them. In front of the full-length mirror on the inside of my closet door, I straightened my trouser legs, sleeves, shoulders, collar, tie, and shot my cuffs. A bit bulky, a touch uncool. Underneath I was wearing thick winter underwear that I normally wore only when I went skating but there was a cold fog out and I didn't want to be uncomfortable. Also, I figured it would weigh a tonne when wet. I needed weight. I'd dropped to 58 stone (128 lbs) on a 183 cm tall (six-foot) large-boned frame. Tying a silk scarf loosely at my throat before pulling on my black cashmere overcoat, snap brim fedora, and gloves, I left my room with the envelope under my arm. There was nobody in the corridors between my room and the exit. I set off on the walk I'd been taking by myself every Thursday afternoon. Along the way, I carefully disposed of my poems and souvenirs in a refuse container at the construction site for the National Arts Centre. I was two minutes early for my appointment, three minutes later than I usually was. “How have things been this week?” “I did what you suggested. I tried to visualise myself in 20 years.” “And what did you see?” “I saw myself working in the country, half an hour outside Regina, at a place called Lumsden, Saskatchewan. I'm living there and teaching in the city, part-time at the university. History is my subject. History of Ideas.”