Review: Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers

Father Urban is a priest in the fictitious Order of St. Clement.  Based in 1950s Chicago, Fr Urban travels extensively, preaching at missions on the religious circuit throughout the mid-western United States.  He lives somewhat of a high life for a priest, traveling by first class rail and dining in fine restaurants.   He considers himself above the petty squabbles and politics of the Order, but one day he is transferred to a remote outpost in Duesterhaus, Minnesota (in fact, when I located Duesterhaus on Yahoo Maps, it literally placed me in the middle of nowhere).

Fr Urban arrives by train and, finding no taxi available, walks over a mile from the station to St Clement’s Hill.  Ostensibly a retreat center, the rector (Father Wilfrid) and a lay assistant (Brother Harold) spend most of their time refurbishing the facilities, always at the lowest possible cost.  Their only transportation is a run-down pickup truck.  Signs are hand-painted by Brother Harold.  Winters are bitter cold; most of the rooms are left unheated.  The Hill is largely ignored by the Order — out of sight, out of mind.

During the week the men work on the property, and on weekends they have pastoral duties in churches nearby.  Fr Urban begins making contacts in the community, building relationships that can benefit St. Clement’s Hill and the Order.  Fr Urban settles in reluctantly, but over time the place begins to grow on him.  When he is called to fill in for a pastor who is taking extended leave, he throws himself into the work:  church attendance goes up, he mentors a curate, and cultivates support for a building campaign.  Fr Urban’s Midas touch served him well on the circuit, and begins to pay dividends for The Hill as well.

Throughout his time at St. Clement’s, Fr Urban remains in contact with Billy Cosgrove, a wealthy benefactor in Chicago.  Billy gives freely to The Hill, beginning with a television set at Christmas.  Later his gifts become more substantial, and while Urban appreciates Billy’s generosity, he also begins to see another side of his friend’s character.  Billy makes his generosity very public, expecting recognition and instant service.  Urban is just as flamboyant as Billy in his own way, but performs innumerable acts of kindness towards others, almost always behind the scenes.

This book is filled with dry wit, as J.F. Powers pokes fun at the Catholic Church, the priesthood, and small-town life.  The emotional side of the story — told through Urban’s relationships with fellow clergy, Billy, and various townspeople — sneaks up on you.  When I began this novel, Father Urban struck me as something of a blowhard, but by the end of the novel he was a “real” person worthy of admiration.

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