Skip to main content

Seminary Boy: A Memoir


Seminary Boy: A Memoir

John Cornwell is an Englishman of Irish heritage who writes
extensively on historical subjects, and in this case he has chosen
to write his own history.

Raised in ugly unrelieved poverty, John was torn between loyalty to
his impish but mendacious, unreliable father and his grasping
passive-aggressive mother. With five children, the couple was
constantly stretched to keep mouths fed, and there was little joy
in Cornwell's childhood. No surprise then that as an intelligent,
sensitive boy, he found solace within the stalwart, buttressed
walls of the Catholic Church. A few brief retreats to a monastery
in Kent, presenting such a contrast to the raucous, often violent
scenes at home, convinced him he had a special relationship with
Jesus and a calling to the priesthood.

As an early adolescent he was sent to a Catholic boy's school
called Cotton. There he was strictly disciplined, academically
pushed, and ultimately became a successful scholar. He was awarded
the high honor of being House Captain at Cotton his senior year and
later secured a place at Oxford.

On rare visits home the young Cornwell watched helplessly as the
relationship between his parents deteriorated, and at times he was
told it was his fault. There was no money and therefore no peace in
the home because his clothing and uniforms for school cost so
dearly. No matter where Cornwell looked, he found reasons for
guilt: his unwanted erection on a somber Christmas morning, his
schoolboy crush on another flirtatious rich boy, and even an old
emotional scar: he'd been assaulted by a stranger in a train
station after pinching money from his mother's purse to ride up to
London on one of his many attempts to escape the chaos of

Through his life at Cotton, the tormented boy was both preyed upon
by a homosexual priest and comforted by another priest/mentor whose
distant kindness provided him an emotional sustenance he had never
experienced with his family.

Cornwell knew his personal epiphany had struck like a bolt of
lightning when, in his final year at Cotton, he was insulted by a
priest for walking into a room without acknowledging his superior's
presence. "I should have said: 'I'm sorry, sir, I really did think
the room was empty.' Had I said something along these lines,
events, and perhaps my whole life, might have turned out
differently." But instead the "boy" who had become a man yelled
back, and in doing so "I was saying an emphatic 'No!' to
acquiescence in the face of humiliation." He was rejecting the way
of passivity towards authority, the Cotton way, the Church's way.
One result of his understandable outburst was that he never
received the money always given to the House Captain at the end of
the year. No explanation was ever offered for this oversight.

Later, after rebuilding a reasonable life of ordinary contentment
and extraordinary distinctions, Cornwell reconciled with his
bedridden father. But he couldn't reconcile himself to the Church's
adamant refusal to acknowledge the sins of abusing priests, though
he still maintained a connection with his one mentor from Cotton
--- his surrogate father through the years --- until that man's sad

Oddly enough, SEMINARY BOY has amusing moments alongside its
poignant and sometimes disturbing vignettes of a boy's isolation in
a system that is designed to break the will while claiming to free
the spirit.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011

Seminary Boy: A Memoir
by John Cornwell

  • Publication Date: September 18, 2007
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Image
  • ISBN-10: 0385514875
  • ISBN-13: 9780385514873