Rev. Urban Nagle, O.P.
ON THE TENTH OF SEPTEMBER,
1805, FATHER SAMUEE T. Wilson of the Order of Preachers-one of
the four founders of the first American Province of Dominicans
and its first Provincial Superior-arrived in the United States.
One hundred years later to the day, I arrived. That is the end
of that little story. There are no conclusions to be drawn from
the interesting coincidence, but I've always wanted to see it
Since Father Wilson is out
of the narrative now, it doesn't matter where he arrived, but
my independence was established in Providence, Rhode Island-the
plantation which separated itself from England two months before
the other twelve colonies.
My father, Edward John Nagle,
and my mother, Mary Elizabeth Keefe, were born in Providence
too, and went to the same parochial school, but all that happened
a long time before my story begins. With striking originality,
they had me chirstened Edward John Nagle (they were used to the
name), so officially I was "Junior" until I picked
up "Urban" on joining the Dominicans. No one made much
of the "Junior" however, and I suppose it is too late
to start worrying about its recurrence now.
The only grandparent I remember
was Mike Keefe, who came to live with us, and when he told me
that he had fought on both sides in the War between the States
(he did come from Wilmington, Delaware, close to the border),
I knew there was a great capacity for impartiality and understanding
in the family, but I didn't know until later that he was to be
the prototype of some of the amazing exploits of "Uncle
A brief sojourn in Warren,
Rhode Island, from my fourth to my ninth year-the term of a five
year lease that father had on an iron foundry-introduced me to
the bucolic joys of a small New England town, marked my debut
into variety, and completely submerged the entire family in Kirkman's
Mother wanted some new furniture
for the larger house, but father made it clear that he had put
all the money he had and was able to borrow into the foundry.
That announcement didn't impress mother at all, although she
must have heard the words, because when father wanted to make
a point about money, he was inclined to roar. She needed furniture,
and the incidental fact that our venture into capitalism left
us very broke was a trifle. So she resorted to wiles and asked
father if she might get some furniture with Kirkman's Soap wrappers,
to which even father had to agree. She forgot to say that she
hadn't bought the soap. We got the furniture, but for five years
and more every time one of us opened a closet door we were deluged
by an avalanche of hard, sharp-edged cakes of brown soap without
designating wrappers. It was a clean house. We had much more
soap than food.
My debut into the theatre-at
the age of six-was a moment of ecstatic joy followed by weeks
of sadness and remorse. I was asked to sing at the parish catch-all
or variety show, having been discovered by the music teacher
at school. She and mother agreed that "Robin on a Tilting
Bough" would be appropriate for one of my tender years performing
under such pious auspices.
However, the piano player who
was an old pro even to the cigarette that was glued to his lower
lip, gave me a hasty education out of the side of his mouth.
He said the second last spot was top billing and that Robin,
no matter how loud I bellowed, would lay an egg. So for his edification
I ran the underworld repertory of the average sixyear old. Came
the night, and as I sauntered onstage in my white Russian suit,
really intending to sing about the tilting bough, he beat out
the intro for Casey Jones and I went through the four verses
and choruses as loud as I could. That the house came down was
inevidible. It's a ridiculous picture even now. Then when I did
a chain of encores that I didn't exactly understand, I was lifted
up on the shoulders of stars of an hour before who had suddenly
become merely the supporting cast. But when mother and father
appeared in the wings, I was dropped on the floor. Mother was
mortified and wept. Father roared. It was from him I got the
voice. The reason I know that mother was mortified was because
she said so about fifty times. I was never quite trusted theatrically
again after that mortification, but I had my moment.
Father moved his foundry back
to the suburbs of Providence and his family and what was left
of the soap back to where we started from, and there I met the
Sisters of Holy Name School. Little did I dream that I would
one day be chaplain at a Motherhouse, nor did they, I presume,
or I would have been singled out for an intensive and highly
High School brought me the
good fortune of having the Christian Brothers. In the good old
days, before the State told the Church how to run its schools,
these specialists offered erudition to their charges with all
gentleness, but if it was spurned, they pounded it in-and if
you think that's a metaphor, you're. . . well, you're young.
There was a bit of sheer luck
in the fact that the class of '22 contained an exceptional batch
of bright or shrewd young men who have, as my forebearers would
have undoubtedly said, "gone far." It made for competition,
and to keep pace with the more literate and literary characters,
I read practically all the hogwash of the early twenties just
as they were beginning to roar. I don't begin to keep up with
the market now because those who write haven't time to read.
It would be a display of erudition
or a feat of memory to list the authors, but you know the standard
bearers of the lost generation. They confused the world and they
confused me, but the futility was so obvious that it had a salutary
effect on some of us. We had to escape into orthodoxy.
My romantic reaction toward
security sought cold stone cloisters and stained glass and this
became concrete as the Dominican Fathers opened Providence College.
There was a pull toward the priesthood and I was very friendly
with my uncle who was a pastor in the diocese, but he lived in
an ordinary rectory not too unlike our own house, and I think
I was going through the Miniver Cheevy stage. Every seventeen
year old in those dear dread days wanted at times to be an anarchistic
Communist (we called it Bolshevik) or a Trappist.
There is a minor mystery about
religious vocations-and all vocations-in that one is attracted
according to his current stage or phase, and as the years pass,
the reasons which brought him into the place in which he finds
himself are quite forgotten, but the call rings more deeply for
new and more fundamental reasons. After becoming a Dominican,
I learned that they were known as guardians of theology. I didn't
know that theology needed any guarding and I certainly wouldn't
have chosen myself for the job.
My interest in white stone
cloisters is certainly diminished in favor of steam heat and
running water-but the Dominicans accepted me and the party for
whom I can speak is very happy about it.
There isn't much that can be
said about the quiet life and the years of wrestling with St.
Thomas Aquinas in this brief space, except that in the long run
St. Thomas usually wins, and that poetic thinking and fanciful
writing usually get laced into syllogistic form, and that crisp,
clipped Anglo-Saxon prose gets beaten down into cumbersome Latinisms.
The seminarian has to do battle to keep from writing like every
By way of diversion, I wrote
plays for the novices and students. For the benefit of collectors,
may I suggest that none are extant, and that is the best thing
that anyone could say about them. The first ambitious venture
was Barter (which I can't pronounce, being a New Englander),
and it won a national prize, so after achieving unexpected success
as a playwright, I made an effort to learn how to write a play.
The next comparable distinction came from the Christophers for
City of Kings. So I am reconciled to winning a prize every twenty
years. Watch out for 1968!
There was a detour in the quest
of a degree in psychology in the days when I thought that this
science would be a help to understanding people and their problems.
But the degree has done no one any harm as I've never taught
a single class in that mysterious subject.
Ordination brought its share
of world conquering zeal, and it seemed that a new era was at
hand (just for me) with the moving pictures and the radio. My
tangential studies and aberrant accomplishments might be directed
to the more widespread dissemination of what I believed. That
was the drive in my contribution to The Blackfriars' Guild. This
latter enterprise, which consumed hours that grew into years,
was filled with joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and
all of these that I could capture are packed into a book called
Behind the Masque. Being half told in some three hundred pages,
it's too much to tell here.
That was the exciting avocation
and it brought me another world of vicarious living. But there
were the bread and butter jobs (I don't like butter, so I never
eat it, and it makes this sound foolish but you can't say "the
bread jobs") and so I taught for six years at Providence
College and edited the Holy Name Journal for six years. It seems
I did everything in terms of six years, like living in Washington,
Providence, Manhattan, and Jersey City. That decision wasn't
in the bond but it always happens. And that is one of the wonderful
things about the religious life. You make one decision and the
poor superiors (in the Irish meaning of the word "poor")
have to make all the others.
Radio and television held a
fascination for me and "Uncle George and Uncle Malachy"
have been done in both media on seventy to eighty network shows.
(We use the word "show" in deference to the commercial
The perfect squelch caught
me after the fourth talk- at the end of the first series-in which
George had to be invented to be a foil for Malachy. There were
about fifteen people in the show, with a quartet and a string
ensemble, announcers, technicians, etc., and they all flew out
to other assignments between 11:59/30 and 12 m. I stood all alone
picking up my notes sure that no one loved me, until the last
of the four talks when a little man came out of the control room
and said, "That was the best series of talks i ever heard."
I filled up like a blowfish, so overwhelming
was my gratitude, so he continued. "You were twelve minutes
on the nose every Sunday." He didn't know what language
I was using.
Twenty years in what the current
heresy of Communism calls "the transmission belt"-theatre,
moving pictures, radio, television and journalism-many of them
running concurrently made for a pin-wheel pace, and I began to
think that my escape from the twenties was something of a boomerang.
But good things come to him
who waits enough six year spells, and I was relieved and made
chaplain of the Dominican Sisters' Motherhouse at St. Mary of
the Springs in Columbus, Ohio.
It's a quiet existence and
seemed startlingly different at first. The Sisters have some
unendurable customs like "Early to bed and early to rise
makes you healthy"-and that's all. I wrote most of my plays
in the early morning hours, and now I'm getting up when I used
to go to bed.
But the current production
has a permanence. You don't strike the sets and say "Good
Night" to the actors when they head for home in their street
clothes. These people are real.
I think I've found my white
stone cloister at last. Maybe I'll do a book about it. There
is much inside the walls which the world should know-much of
joy and hope, labor and sacrifice, and the sprinkling of sorrow
needed for sanctity-and perhaps most of all the awareness of
EDITOR'S NOTE: Father Nagle's
published plays include Barter (Longmans, 1929), Catherine the
Valiant (id., 1931), Savonarola (in Theatre for Tomorrow, edited
by Emmet Lavery; id., 1940), Lady of Fatima (McMullen, 1948),
and City of Kings (Christopher Press, Rochester, N. Y., 1949).
Among his works, other than drama, are Behind the Masque ( McMullen,
1951), Uncle George and Uncle Malachy (Bruce, 1946), and a number
of pamphlets published by Our Sunday Visitor.