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Summer Books

A remarkable story of a woman and the priest she loved

By Flavia Alaya
Feminist Press, 400 pages, $25.95


I was thumbing through books in a small Vermont bookshop during a recent weekend foray when a companion asked the best book I had read recently. I replied immediately that the most intriguing book I read in all of 1999 was Under the Rose.

The book is the story of the double life the author shared with her lover and the father of her children, Fr. Harry Browne, who was a pastor and social activist in Manhattan while Alaya and the couple’s three children lived in New Jersey.

The FBI, after discovering and arresting Philip Berrigan at Browne’s church, told Cardinal Terence Cooke about Browne’s relationship and children, and shortly thereafter Browne left St. Gregory the Great Parish. His rectory, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, had become a stop in the Vietnam antidraft underground railroad to Canada. Browne died in 1980 on the same morning as Dorothy Day.

I consider Alaya’s book fascinating, in part because while it relates the tale of a flawed clerical giant, it is really her own story. Her friends asked her to write a novel, which the book could have been, but she honestly relates her tale of love and politics.

Some have criticized both Browne and Alaya as selfish, wanting to have it all and flouting church authority and social conventions in their search. Part of Alaya’s appeal, I think, is that she does not ask for sympathy or even understanding. She reports in her acknowledgments that some publishers saw her manuscript as “too naughty for their imprint.” She does not attempt to justify her story or to elicit any particular emotion on the part of her readers or suggest that somehow structures should be changed in conformity to her situation. She simply tells the story. And she writes with style and with grace as she describes “what was simultaneously tragic and rollicking about a situation as outrageous as ours.”

Part of a strong Italian-American family, Alaya grew up in East Harlem and nearby New Rochelle and went off to Italy as a Fulbright scholar, where she and Browne met. She later earned a Ph.D. in Victorian literature from Columbia University. Browne, 16 years her senior, was a Catholic University professor with a research grant in immigration history when they met. He was later called back to New York where he taught and did pastoral work and engaged in organizing. He was to write the biography of New York’s Archbishop John Ryan, a long-awaited project that never materialized.

Alaya reports that, in Italy, Browne turned one conversation to food, describing his first Italian family dinner as eucharistic. Something happens to that developing liturgical sense. When their daughter is born, a priest in Ridgefield, N.J., refuses Alaya’s request for baptism until a parishioner questionnaire is filled out. Browne took matters into his own hands and “put Nina’s tiny head under the tap in the sink and baptized her himself.”

Alaya reports that children “seemed to me to put the seal of ecstasy and otherworldliness on love, as if they had existed before us, as if our destinies had always been inscribed on the small brows of three gift creatures, to be dipped in gold and frankincense and extra-virgin olive oil.”

She does not write in anger or even disappointment and seems fair in treating other players in the drama. She reports that Cardinal Cooke, in Browne’s exit interview, after being informed of Browne’s family, asks, “Richfield, is it, Harry?” When Browne says he had been planning to leave the active ministry, the cardinal asks, “Are you sure? We can still use you, Harry.”

They had not told their children about Harry’s double life. They learn about it while staying with friends as the parents vacationed together. Returning, the couple is greeted by “Christopher, our blue-eyed darling, [who] asked the question we had almost forgotten to dread.”

“ ‘Daddy, are you a priest?’

“The little bastard couldn’t wait another minute to ask.”

Alaya reports, “It wasn’t exactly the way we planned it -- but how had we planned it?”

She also reports a later abortion. Browne held her “in his arms and let me weep, all the dry indignant tears that bled my ruthless self-pity. He told me to do what I needed to do, what I wanted to do.”

She reflects that “the agony of that choice is still as alive as it was -- so vivid I can still find it in myself to think sometimes how little it would have mattered in the scheme of things to spare that germ of life -- for what great achievement, in the end, offset the pity of its loss?” She confides, confessionally, an admixture of feelings: “I will punish myself with father thoughts, with mother thoughts, forever, here and hereafter. But I will never let myself forget I had to do it.”

Browne had said early and often in their relationship that guilt is a wasted emotion. Its absence makes this tale no less sad or less compelling, which reflects what Alaya called “the peculiar crippled courage” that inspired her book.

It could have been a novel. It is quite a story, and a well-told tale.

Fr. William C. Graham writes NCR’s Bookshelf column.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000