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Jesuit Father Rick Curry
Father Richard Curry, SJ, Founder of the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped, Passes Away

December 21, 2015 — Jesuit Father Richard J. Curry passed away on December 19 at age 72 after a long illness. Below, Jesuit Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America magazine, remembers FrCurry's extraordinary life and work:

Dear friends: I am very sorry to have to share the very sad news with you that a remarkable Jesuit priest has died, whom many of you know — Rick Curry, SJ, died last night in his at the Jesuit infirmary at St. Joseph’s University, in his hometown of Philadelphia, at 11:30 PM. He was 72. Rick had been ill for several years, and in fact had once been declared dead, and was revived, and lived for several more years. He was a very good friend and an extraordinary person. One of the most remarkable Jesuits of our time. Of any time.

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Rick. Founder of the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped, which helped to train and promote handicapped actors (or differently abled actors); recent founder of Dog Tag Bakery in Washington, DC, which provided assistance for “Wounded Warriors”; a professional cook and the author of several wonderful cookbooks like “Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking” and “Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking,” both of which combined real-life recipes with inspiring and often hilarious stories; a teacher and Ph.D., who wrote about the history of Jesuit theater; a Jesuit brother and then later in his life, to the surprise and delight of many, a priest; a marvelous speaker and peerless raconteur; and a great supporter, mentor and friend to many. He was well known to the wider world too: he was often profiled and written about. Here, for example, is a superb "60 Minutes" interview with Rick:

I first got to know Rick when I was a regent at America Magazine, where he was a frequent visitor, and a great friend of the late Father John W. Donohue, SJ, who died a few years ago. The two had a fantastic and funny friendship and enjoyed calling one another, in a mock serious tone, “Father” and (as Rick then was) “Brother.” At the time, Rick was working at NTWH and living in downtown close to his office in a small apartment, and he would often come to Sunday Mass at our community.

In fact, one of my favorite exchanges happened this time of year. John was well known for his austere lifestyle and wore the oldest clothes imaginable. One Sunday, during Advent, John, who was also much older than Rick, walked into the chapel wearing a ratty, ancient sweater with huge holes in its sleeves. “Oh Father,” said Rick, “I see you have your Christmas sweater.” “Yes Brother,” said John. “Christmas 1942,” said Rick. “Hardy har har,” said John.

Nothing seemed to slow Rick down. He was a kind of perpetual motion machine, always with many irons in the fire: plans for new projects and new books, ideas for helping the handicapped and injured veterans, and a calendar packed with lunches and dinners and baptisms and weddings and funerals. And of course endless fundraising events first for NTWH and then Dog Tag Bakery. Even when his health declined, he soldiered on. I saw him last at the Jesuit vacation house at Cape May, NJ, in August. Though he was obviously struggling physically, he relished being down the shore with his brothers. And we relished having him with us.

Most people may have known Rick him best for his own handicap: he was born without a right forearm. And while it’s wrong to focus on that — he was much more than his right arm — the stories he told about how he overcame that handicap (and I hope I’m using the right word: “handicapped” and "disabled" were the ones Rick used) were among the most inspiring stories I’ve ever heard. Over and over he was confronted with obstacles, from early in his life — and even, sadly, in the Society of Jesus.

Once, for example, he went into an audition for a commercial after he had finished with his acting training. The woman at the front desk took one look at him, burst out laughing and asked, as I recall, “Who put you up to this?” She considered Rick, quite literally, a joke.

But he also used humor to great advantage. He had a rapier wit. Once, an agent called NTWH asking for a double amputee. “Do you want someone without arms or his legs?” said Rick. “Does it matter?” said the agent. “It does to him!” said Rick.

And, as I mentioned, not long ago, Rick had a serious illness and was declared dead. He was eventually revived, and after a long recovery began working again. A few days after he returned to his Jesuit community at Georgetown, I spoke with him on the phone. We talked at length about his experiences, and then I asked him what I was very curious about: Did he have any sort of experience of God when he died?

“No!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, and started laughing. “Can you believe it? After all I’ve done! I was expecting at least SOMETHING!”

But my favorite story, which I always remember, and always will remember, came from when he was much younger. I asked him to recount for me for a book I wrote, and so I’ll share it with you. It’s a wonderful story of acceptance, and he told it often in public.

When he was a little boy, in the 1950s, the preserved right forearm of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, came to Philadelphia. Strange as this may seem to non-Catholics, this "relic" is particularly well known: It's the arm that the Jesuit used to baptized thousands of people during his missionary days in Africa, India and Japan.

Rick's first-grade teacher, a Catholic sister, thought it would be a good idea for Rick to see the arm — though she didn't expect there would be any sort of miraculous outcome. Neither did his mother, though she wrote a letter to have Rick excused from class to see the relic. Neither of these two women was making any connection between Rick's missing a right forearm and the visit of the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier.

But his Catholic-school classmates did! They were praying hard for a miracle. Maybe Rick would be healed — and be like all the other children. So when Rick's mother picked him up to drive him to the cathedral downtown, his class was thrilled.

A huge line wound up and down the aisles of the cathedral. Because of the number of people, an announcement was made: visitors would be able only to touch the reliquary, the glass box that held Francis' arm. You wouldn't be able to kiss the reliquary, as some pious Catholics had hoped. But when several priests saw the boy without his right arm, they said to his mother, "Oh, no, he can kiss it!" Rick, however, wanted no such “healing.”

So he kissed the glass case, but pressed the stump of his right arm against himself — hoping that it would not grow.

On his way back home, on the trolley car, he kept checking his arm. But there wasn't any change. No miracle. And when he returned to class, his classmates told them how disappointed they were. Perhaps, they said, he wasn't worthy of a miracle.

But someone else had a very different reaction. When he returned home that night, his sister Denise, who would later become a nun, was hiding behind the drapes of the living room windows. She peeked out. When she saw that no miracle had occurred, she was delighted. "Oh great!" she said. "I'm so happy that nothing happened. Because I like you the way you are!"

Today’s Gospel reading, from Luke, was of Mary and Elizabeth, greeting one another. And Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” When Rick first felt the call to the Jesuits, there were many obstacles that he had to overcome. Many. They did not deter him. He became a brother, perhaps the most well-known Jesuit brother in the world. Later on, he felt the call to priesthood, and still then there were new obstacles. They did not deter him either. He became a wonderful priest. In all these things he trusted in his original call.

Blessed was he who believed what was spoken to him by the Lord would be fulfilled! And blessed are we to have known such a protean, talented and gifted man.

Rest in peace, Rick.

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