By David M. Baumann

The May 28, 2017 issue of The Living Church featured a cover article by Richard J. Mammana about a book called The Innocent Curate by Paris Leary. Doubleday had published it in 1963. I first read this book about 40 years ago when I borrowed it from a church library and was greatly impacted by it. I was especially impressed by one of the final scenes, which stayed with me as the years passed, and for a long time, looked for a copy of my own. I finally found one in 2007 and read the book again. Recently I read it a third time, this time aloud to my wife. She and I were so impressed, that I was moved to take action to bring the book back to our collective attention; I am convinced it deserves to be recognized as a timeless classic.

In Mammana’s well-researched review, he points out that the book was heavily criticized when it was first published for being a thinly veiled, malicious sneer at St. George’s, Schenectady, and its rector, Darwin Kirby. His article describes the book as a roman à clef. I had to look up the term; it is French for “novel with a key,” and means a fictional story in which real people or events appear with invented names. Apparently, this was not to the liking of those underlying real people. Mammana’s article relates how parishioners of St. George’s and citizens of Schenectady worked hard to suppress the book, even 30 years after it was published, by gathering up as many copies as they could find — even by outright theft from libraries. Publicized reviews were negative.

As a result, the book quickly disappeared, apparently no one noticing its true theme. Mammana notes that it is still sought after by Anglican book collectors, and that copies are scarce and very pricey when found. I looked online in September 2022, and found only two copies for sale, one for $250 and another for $950. But I also learned that the book is now in the public domain, so I scanned my own copy and made it available through a print-on-demand company for a reasonable price.

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Why should so few people notice what the book is really about? Admittedly, the reader can get far along and still wonder if there is a plot. There are humorous and thorough descriptions of the various characters with very little actually “happening.” Characters are introduced, their personality quirks skillfully described in rich and droll detail. We learn that Dr. Walter Groby, the Rector of St. Clement’s Church in Schinderhook, is fervently desirous of becoming a bishop, and has embarked on a number of projects in his church that will make him desirable and electable. His wife, Fiona, is a near-cipher, lost in dreams of what ought to have been but isn’t, her heartbroken regret numbed by an astonishing amount of alcohol.

We learn that wealthy people really run the show, especially Mrs. O Felix Cooper, a truly devout do-gooder whose wealth and mannerisms make her overwhelmingly bossy. We learn that young couples from the local electric industry are beginning to come to St. Clement’s in impressive numbers; it might be implied that this is a good career move. They are, however, looked down upon by the residents of the First Ward, whose families are the very wealthy, generations-long members of St. Clement’s. And so the novel goes, introducing and sketching out characters aplenty.

The book may be based on St. George’s, Schenectady, but there is no doubt in my mind that its characters are almost archetypes of church members (and rectors) that can be found across the nation. Dr. Groby is probably based on Dr. Darwin Kirby, the rector of St. George’s for 40 years, including the short time when Paris Leary was his curate. But are the other characters similarly based on real people of St. George’s? I don’t know — and it’s significant that I don’t. Most readers across the nation would not know any of these characters, including Dr. Groby. They are exaggerations, maybe even caricatures, but that gives them a universal quality. This book is not a thinly veiled attack on a particular church and its rector; the many Schenectady folk who made that claim provided no reason why it would have been. The self-identification by selected parishioners of St. George’s, as well as the Schenectady Gazette that panned the book, is almost funny: they recognized themselves! Had they not done so and made that identification public, probably very few, if any, other readers would have made the connection. That’s just not what The Innocent Curate is about.

What, then is it about? The book is almost precisely halfway through before something happens that throws everything over, and the plot digs in with a suddenness that takes the reader by surprise: right in the middle of a major church social event, Sonny Ball (the “innocent curate,” who has grown up at St. Clements and has recently been ordained) receives the stigmata. This can make the reader laugh out loud, but if one’s reaction stops there, the reader misses the crucial unwinding of the plot that follows as it picks up steam.

The first clue that there is something deeply significant in the book is the, at first glance, odd and obscure quotation on one of the introductory pages: “Five for the symbols at your door …” which is attributed to “Green Grow the Rashes-O, a folk song, anonymous.” There is an error here; “Green Grow the Rashes-O” is a poem by Robert Burns, often misidentified with “Green Grow the Rushes-O,” which is indeed an anonymous folk song, and the one intended for the quote; its verses count numbers down from twelve to one using mostly Christian symbols for the numbers. The verse “Five for the symbols at your door …” almost certainly describes the putting of blood around the doors of the Israelites on the eve of their departure from Egypt, when the Angel of Death will exact judgment on the rebellious Egyptians, but will “pass over” those with blood on their doorframes. The application of the blood of the Passover lamb in the time of Moses came later to be understood as a type or anticipation of the five wounds of Christ, from which came the blood that would deliver believers from eternal death. The development of the story of The Innocent Curate will show how apt this appellation is to describe a very serious theme of the book: spiritual warfare.

Spiritual warfare is not a popular theme in modern Christian life. C. S. Lewis had to explain and somewhat defend his introduction of the devil into the works that launched his popularity as a Christian writer. The idea of the devil and spiritual warfare had been dismissed by most people of that time, even Christians. Leary’s book, under the surface of wry humor, puts very real demonic evil into the realm of ordinary church life. The fact that all but one of the characters in the book completely misses it, and that not a single reviewer or commentator that I have read also completely misses it, tells me that the book deserves a second hearing.

Right at the beginning, the theme is anticipated. In describing Mrs. O. Felix Cooper, Leary writes, “She was strong … she brooked no opposition from man or the Devil. In her defense it must be said that she was more often in open conflict with the daemonic than with the human.” The first time one reads this, it might inspire a smile; re-reading it after knowing how the story unfolds could bring a chill. Beginning with this description, but throughout the book, Leary writes at two levels: the obvious, wryly humorous, and even laughable narrative at one level, which masks a profound tale of how foolish and somewhat lovable people are threatened by and engage with true, seductive evil. The writing sets forth both levels simultaneously with extraordinary skill.

As the influence of evil mounts in a church community that is completely, ignorantly, and innocently unaware of it, God acts in a fantastic and shockingly unexpected way. The appearance of the stigmata is the pivotal event in the story. God’s miraculous intervention is not even recognized for what it is; on the contrary, since it utterly destroys the familiar and upsets the expected, it is therefore immediately fought against by all the “ordinary people,” using commonly accepted but very worldly techniques. They all fail; the power of God, though nearly invisible and certainly unrecognized, is irresistible and invincible. Things are taken entirely out of everyone’s control.

Dr. Groby is desperate to keep the news of the stigmata quiet, but within a day, several people learn about it. Its impact gradually grows, and it becomes evident that whatever happens, there can be no going back. Sonny is quickly confronted with three temptations that are a shiver-inducing parallel to Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Sonny’s fiancée, Rosemary, wants him to be examined and treated by a doctor and a psychiatrist under the assumption that the stigmata are just some sort of mental or emotional event: “take something central to what God is doing in your life and turn it into something ordinary” (“turn these stones into bread”). Both the doctor and the psychiatrist determine that there is nothing they can do for the young man. Mrs. O. Felix Cooper — a wealthy, devout do-gooder — insists that Sonny become a hermit in fulfillment of her own misguided interpretations of the will of God (“if you trust God, throw yourself down”). And worst of all, Colonel August Brock urges Sonny to become a “new Messiah” as a leader in his fundraising organization (“worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world”).

Colonel Brock is overlooked by every review I’ve encountered, and yet, he’s central to the theme of spiritual warfare. He runs a multi-million dollar corporation dedicated to raising funds for churches, by which he corrupts and secularizes them. For his top employees he skims the cream of the crop of graduating seminarians, thereby both corrupting these graduates and preventing them from entering true pastoral ministry. He focuses on many churches’ besetting sin of seeing their success as being engaged in endless busyness, time-consuming projects, committee meetings, social events, building expansions, and — above all — fundraising! These completely worldly measures are seen by almost all as signs of success, and Dr. Groby sees them as central to St. Clement’s identity, hoping by them eventually to catch the eyes of a diocese looking for a bishop. Meanwhile, Brock has learned that he has to “tread warily” in his seduction of the church: whenever he has encountered people “who really did believe in God” he “always got his fingers burnt badly.”

The trajectories of these people’s lives all come together on one day in a crisis that changes everyone, and all of them for the better. Fantastically, this happens before a confrontation with and victory over evil, showing the immense power of God to redeem — even when people are ignorant of it and even before the presence of genuine evil is discerned, confronted, and conquered. The final victory over evil is almost anti-climactic. This explication of grace at work is splendidly presented, and the resolutions show the reality of conversion in all its profundity and ambiguity. It is noteworthy that the name of the chapter in which these things happen is “Salve Festa Dies”: “Hail festival day.”

On this momentous festival day, after all the temptations and harassment the curate suddenly grows a backbone; the event had been anticipated in dozens of clever multi-layer incidents in which the author excels. Mrs. Cooper’s interfering and dominating manner is identified, punctured, and deflated, and she is transformed to show the humility and love that were always not far from the surface. Dr. Groby is shown to have been at heart one who never intended evil to anyone and who was capable of repentance, which he grasps when the opportunity comes to hand. Oakes Broussard, who had been shackled by his overwhelming grief, is miraculously transformed. The second magnificent supernatural event of the book takes place soon after when he confronts and conquers the threatening evil with such total abandon to God that it can make the reader shout out loud.

Leary never wrote another novel. This is terribly tragic, as he showed himself to be a gifted and insightful writer, skilled at many levels. It is all the more amazing that the book was published when he was only 32. One can only speculate on what else he may have produced if he had not been vilified and persecuted. I do hope that, now that The Innocent Curate is in the public domain, it will have a second chance and be recognized as a true classic of the Christian spiritual life, worthy of wide distribution and serious attention.

The Rev. David Baumann served as an Episcopal priest for 39 years in the Diocese of Los Angeles and then for seven years in the Diocese of Springfield. He is now retired.

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