Under the Rose

Things happen. Someone writes a version of events and it becomes history’s first draft. Even when you have personally watched "things happen," there will be eye openers when you see them in print. The story we have told ourselves (and others) and the version we finally read will have a core resemblance, but then diverge in critically important details. Minor ones come to the fore, new ones appear, while others are lost. Notice how the end has shaped the beginning and how the middle has been designed to link the two. What did happen-really? Isn’t this the nut the historian is always trying to crack? Where is the "real" story?

When did the parishioners of Saint Gregory the Great Parish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side really know that their pastor, Henry J. Browne, had a secret life across the river in New Jersey? When he resigned in the summer of 1970, the first rumor was that Cardinal Terence Cooke had objected to the arrest of antiwar protestors, Philip Berrigan and Phil Eberhart, in the parish rectory, as well as the raucous events that followed at a Mass the same evening. But not long after Browne’s departure, another rumor began to drift out-a family in New Jersey! As time passed, it came to seem as though parishioners, of whom I was one, must have always known that their exuberant and irreverent pastor would have had another life-though the exact facts of this one were unexpected and scandalous. But no, this book says none of us knew. His double life seems to have been a well-kept secret.

Who was Henry J. Browne? First of all, he was a distinguished historian of labor history and archivist at The Catholic University. Second, he was a quintessential Irish-American New Yorker, a flirt, a teller of stories, and a showoff with a bullying manner. His brains, his energy, and his aggression made him a serious scholar, and brought him ultimately to be a good parish priest and a ceaseless community organizer. His childhood poverty made him a ready defender of the poor and his foul mouth was enough to stop an argument midstream. If his slapdash manner while preaching sometimes left his parishioners aghast (had Vatican II really changed things this much?), still he was a pastoral animator. He brought vitality to the parish and the neighborhood. And, third, as we learn in this memoir, he was the father of three children and the lover of Flavia Alaya.

Under the Rose (sub rosa) is a partial first draft of this history. Saint Gregory’s in the 1960s is there and so is Browne’s community organizing, but the book’s emotional weight lies with Alaya’s headstrong flight from a sheltering middle-class, Italian-American family into the passionate embrace of everything her parents cautioned against-and not without reason. Harry Browne and Flavia Alaya met in 1957 as Fulbright scholars in Italy. She was a recent graduate of Barnard College, there to study Mazzini and Croce. Browne, sixteen years her senior, was on the rebound from an unexpected and unexplained ecclesiastical demotion to teaching at the archdiocesan preparatory seminary. He chose research abroad instead.

Their flirtation began with a canceled orientation class in Perugia. It didn’t take long for the romantic and restless Alaya to fall into the arms of the engaging Harry Browne and quickly invent a mythic narrative of herself as the priest’s concubine. Their scholarly work, hers in Padua, his in Rome, was interrupted by rendezvous up and down the Apennines, here recounted as a combination American musical and bodice ripper. Back in New York, their relationship continues, she living in a small apartment near Saint Gregory’s and gingerly participating in his initial efforts to thwart the wholesale destruction of the neighborhood’s tenement housing. For the birth of their first-born in 1963, Alaya returns to Italy.

Over the course of the next several years, Alaya moves to New Jersey, has two more children, raises the three, aborts a fourth, finishes a dissertation, becomes a university professor, and carries on the usual housekeeping, neighborhood, and school activities. "A woman’s affair with a priest...marks her unconventional path toward independence," so says the publisher, The Feminist Press. They must know!

Browne is back and forth on late-night visits while serving as associate and then pastor of Saint Gregory’s, teaching at the seminary, masterminding the Stryker’s Bay Neighborhood Council’s fight to insure low-income housing, serving the neighborhood’s down-and-out, and conducting a successful political and media campaign against New York City’s urban renewal plan. Along the way, he becomes a hero to many of his parishioners, neighbors, fellow priests, and Catholic social activists across the country.

Browne is active as well in the anti-war movement, which brings FBI agents to the rectory door. Their surveillance exposes his busy life on both sides of the Hudson River. But by the time Berrigan is arrested at the rectory in April 1970, Browne has already promised Alaya that he will leave the parish and become a family man. Parish rumor had it that the FBI-reputedly all straight-laced Fordham graduates, their chief turns out to have been Browne’s seminary classmate-reported these late-night activities to the chancery office, which led to Browne’s resignation from Saint Gregory’s. Not so, according to Alaya. She says that Cardinal Cooke called Browne to the chancery office more than six weeks later and offered him the chance to continue his priestly work elsewhere. In this telling, the parting between cardinal and priest is wholly amicable. Browne resigned and left Saint Gregory’s and more or less went right on doing in Paterson, New Jersey, and at Rutgers University what he had been doing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: organizing, agitating, and teaching.

He was no longer a parish priest, of course, but he went on, as he saw it, with his priestly vocation, including on occasion saying Mass. His stubborn insistence that once a priest always a priest, combined with Alaya’s growing feminism, seems to have indefinitely postponed their marrying, and there is no evidence in the book that they ever did tie the knot. Nor is it clear to what degree Browne, though an affectionate father and sometime lover, ever actually settled down to being a family man. By the end of the seventies, Alaya reports a stormy life, including their violent quarrels and his displays of sexual acting out with other women in her presence. In the late seventies, he fell fatally ill with leukemia. He died on November 19, 1980.

What is to be made of Alaya’s very long and dramatic story? Her love/hate relationships with Browne, her affection for his priestly colleagues, her sympathy for organizing and politicking, and her own very large sense of herself as a tragic heroine overwhelm any but the most perfunctory attention to the consequences of their double life for the parish or the church, or indeed for themselves and their children.

What finally was Browne’s own assessment? What was hers? Alaya reports that at a 1976 bishops’ meeting he challenged the church’s discipline by asking, "What does the church’s stand on celibacy do but endorse concubinage?" On the same page, she sums up their relationship as "this extraordinary banal matter of living together, or trying to." A far cry from an Italian affair that combined high romantic ideals and adolescent subterfuge, their story finally seems not the operatic tragedy Alaya imagines but the sad story of a marriage that never was and a priest who was always a priest.

Among a round of visiting parishioners, I last saw Browne in his New York University hospital room as he was dying, what Alaya dubs, "his comeback on the New York stage." Our visit was brief because he was in deep conversation with Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American Catholic historians, and the man, Alaya speculates, who may have been instrumental in having Browne ousted from The Catholic University in the 1950s and sent back to New York. Were they forgiving one another or perhaps, as two historians, puzzling over the church’s tumultuous changes of which Browne was so conspicuous an example and agent?

Now three decades into the post-Vatican II evolution of the Catholic church, can we fully understand the assumptions and motives under which American Catholics, and a brilliant man like Browne, were operating in those heady years? If the Latin Mass and fish on Friday could be done away with, why not, many asked, priestly celibacy as well? Widespread expectations foresaw the imminent reintroduction of a married clergy in the Roman church. What harm was there in anticipating those changes? That was the thinking of some priests who left to marry. A very different church seemed in the offing than the one we have arrived at.

How did Browne’s double life fit in? Was it in anticipation of a renewed church or a vestige of the hidden practices of the old? Whatever his own no doubt complicated and shifting motives, his former parishioners, including myself, and his confreres in the Catholic social justice world, found it hard to see him go. When he died in 1980, his funeral Mass at Saint Gregory’s was a memorable sendoff in the style to which he had accustomed so many. West 90th Street was promptly and grandly renamed Henry J. Browne Boulevard by his political allies, and to this day his bracing pastoral style and his passion for social justice are remembered affectionately and gratefully.

Of this irrepressible soul, only God could be an adequate judge. History is another story.

Published in the 2000-01-14 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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