NEW YORK — The Rev. Rick Curry, who transformed his birth defect into what he called a blessing when it enabled him to better minister to wounded war veterans and the disabled through theater workshops he founded, died on Saturday in Philadelphia. He was 72.
The cause was heart failure, said his friend the Rev. James Martin, an author and editor-at-large of America, the weekly Roman Catholic magazine published by the Jesuits.
Born without a right forearm, Father Curry, as an aspiring actor, was once ridiculed by a receptionist when he arrived to audition for a mouthwash commercial, and he required a special dispensation from the Vatican to become a priest — when he was 66 — because canon law requires two hands to celebrate Mass.
“I didn’t go to a one-handed school that taught me how to live in the two-fisted world,” he told SJU Magazine, a publication of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, in 2009. “I had to learn to adapt. It wasn’t always easy, but this disability is a gift from God.”
To bolster his confidence and prepare him to practice law someday, his father enrolled him in an acting class when he was 6 years old. He embraced stagecraft as his vehicle to overcome what others viewed as a handicap, and he preached storytelling to damaged veterans as a means, as he put it, to “open up the floodgates of post-traumatic stress.”
In 1977, he founded the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped in New York City and Belfast, Maine. It spawned the Wounded Warriors Writers Workshop in 2003 and the Academy for Veterans, which helps soldiers disabled in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuild their lives. Both are based at Georgetown University in Washington.
“With the disabled, you need a guide dog, you need a wheelchair, and people get that,” Father Curry said in an interview with Ecumenica, a journal of theater and performance, in 2011. “But you also need your spirit lifted. You need to make art. You need to tell your story. You need to create.”
Richard Jerome Curry was born in Philadelphia on March 18, 1943, the son of John Curry and the former Susanna Dougherty. When his mother first saw her infant son, she called her sister for consolation. His father retreated to a bar. On his birthdays, his father would promise him a new arm.
“I said, ‘Aren’t I enough the way I am?’ ” Father Curry said on “60 Minutes” in 1999.
He joined the Jesuits after high school when he was 19, became a Jesuit brother in 1962, and graduated in 1968 from what was then St. Joseph’s College with a bachelor’s degree in English. He received a master’s in theater from Villanova University and a doctorate in educational theater from New York University.
In New York, when he showed up for the mouthwash commercial audition, he never made it past the receptionist.
“I was stunned, I was hurt,” he told students at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia in 2010. “There was no way I could convince her that having one arm wouldn’t stop me from gargling mouthwash.”
The next day, he said, he decided to establish his international theater training institute for the physically disabled in a SoHo loft. The workshop for wounded veterans came later.
Father Curry became a priest at 66 only after a triple amputee bursting with anger sought him out for spiritual counseling in New York and beseeched him for absolution.
“I explained that I was a brother and had never been called to be a priest,” Father Curry told SJU Magazine. “He asked, ‘What do you mean? Who has to call you?’ I said, ‘God, or the Christian community.’ He replied, ‘Well, then, I’m calling you. I want you to be a priest.’ ”