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Writer Of Priests . . . The Vocation Of J.F. Powers

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Though he wasn’t a priest himself, J.F. Powers “seemed to have an interior knowledge of what it meant to be one in the United States,” wrote Mel Gussow for The New York Times. Through his fiction writing, Powers articulated the post-WWII priestly experience like no one else. This July 8 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth in Jacksonville, Ill.
Of his early environment, Powers remarked: “The town was Protestant. The best people were Protestants and you felt that.” Powers was one of three children; his father worked as a manager for a dairy and poultry company. Young Powers had an all-American middle-class way of life, much of which revolved around the playing of baseball, basketball, and football.
He attended high school at the Franciscan-run Quincy College Academy in Quincy, Ill., where he was an average student and a fine basketball player, as related in the biography J.F. Powers by J.V. Hagopian. One former instructor remembered Powers and his closest friends as a likable group of jocks and pranksters.
Two of his friends joined the seminary after graduation, but Powers didn’t think he was cut out for such a calling. He had no objection to prayer and was not necessarily opposed to celibacy. But he wished to avoid other priestly social situations, particularly those that involved fundraising, an activity he regarded as: “shaking hands with some guy, and you can’t really tell him what’s wrong with him, because he’s got what you need.”
With no clerical future, Powers began a string of jobs in the Depression era. He worked in a department store, tried to sell insurance, and even became a chauffeur for a successful investor. A job somewhat more conducive to his talents came when he served as an editor with the Chicago Historical Records Survey. He also took classes at Northwestern University but never obtained a college degree.
When World War II erupted, Powers — a pacifist — refused his induction to the Army. As a result, he served nearly 14 months in Minnesota’s Sandstone Prison. Upon his release, he worked as an orderly in a Chicago hospital and began composing short fiction.
In 1946, he married Betty Wahl. His wife, who eventually placed several short stories with The New Yorker, was herself a writer of considerable merit. But her output would be very limited, as so much of her energies were ultimately devoted to the rearing of the couple’s five children.
The year 1947 saw the release of his first collection of short fiction. Soon after, he obtained a teaching position at Milwaukee’s Marquette University.
In 1951, Powers and his young family relocated to County Wicklow, Ireland, where he crafted stories involving Midwestern priests. Two years later, his family headed back to the Midwest, where he wrote and taught before once again relocating his family to Ireland, this time in Dublin.
There he embarked on his first novel, Morte d’Urban, which involves Fr. Urban Roche, an eloquent public speaker who tries to raise money for a fictional religious order called the Clementines. Powers’ book was originally intended as a short story, but it soon outgrew those parameters. After about a year and a half in Dublin, the Powers family headed back once again to the Midwest. From his home in St. Cloud, Minn., Powers continued to work on his novel.
Morte d’Urban saw publication in 1962 and won the 1963 National Book Award, beating out the works of such luminaries as Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike. Powers began to garner the respect of several famous writers, but his prizewinning novel was not a tremendous financial success.
And, as Hagopian writes, the book’s “royalties did not enable him to buy a house.” Despite this lack of wealth, Powers declined offers to adapt Morte d’Urban to film, fearing that Hollywood would turn his novel into a farce.
Powers was comedic but also thoughtful. One priest wrote to him in 1964 saying: “I saw myself in the shoes of Father Urban very graphically, not to say painfully. . . . I believe that the novel is an affirmative one, that it takes a positive stance on the priesthood, its dignity and its burdens.”
Though he also contributed nonfiction pieces to Catholic publications, Powers the fiction writer worked slowly and often spent a full year crafting a single short story. He once said: “If I had enough income, I don’t think I’d write. It’s a sweaty, dirty job.” Money remained an issue for this writer who, despite receiving significant literary awards, never enjoyed a large popular following.
After yet another period in Ireland, the Powers family finally settled in the Minnesota community of Collegeville, where the writer taught his craft, along with English literature, at St. John’s University. His second and final novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, did not appear until 1988, more than a quarter-century after his first novel. He died in Collegeville on June 12, 1999, at age 81.
Powers did at times venture into non-clerical themes but the greater part of his talent was devoted to portraying “those heroic family doctors of the soul.”

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