Places: Morte d’Urban

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSt. Clement’s Hill

St. Morte d’UrbanClement’s Hill. White elephant of a retreat house located near the fictional town of Duesterhaus, Minnesota, and a symbol of the Clementine order’s struggle for survival. In Father Urban’s mind, the central question confronting the Clementines is whether St. Clement’s Hill will end up “as one more spot where the good seed of its zeal had fallen and flourished, or as another where the order had lost out?” In a practical sense the task handed Father Urban primarily involves his being able to apply his entrepreneurial talents to his new environs. It is a switch rich in irony. Chicago had provided for him a market he had become accustomed to, a vast commercial landscape upon which he could wheel and deal with a unique mix of business insight and religious devotion. He had been the order’s star performer. Then suddenly and without clear cause, he is banished to a backwater retreat house where a devoted priest’s view is expected to turn within, especially to the direction his life is taking. However, Father Urban’s entrepreneurial instincts are still on display immediately upon his arrival at St. Clement’s Hill. One of his first reactions to the facility is to the welcoming signboard whose “lettering was sharp and elegant, worthy of a tombstone” but whose colors “didn’t do much for each other” and had the overall effect of stating “fresh eggs for sale.”


*Chicago. Major midwestern city in Illinois where Father Urban is able to roam with confidence between church rectories, chancelleries, and corporate offices in pursuit of the latest fund-raising opportunity that might benefit the Clementines. The city represents one of the great centers of twentieth century Catholicism during a period when the church was undergoing a major transformation as a result of the flight of great segments of the population from the cities to the suburbs.

St. Clement’s Golf Course

St. Clement’s Golf Course. Course that Father Urban arranges to build near the retreat house as a fund-raising vehicle. To Father Urban the course represents the common ground on which the sacred and secular can meet in a mutually beneficial manner. He views it as an inroad to the Minnesota rich. Powers utilizes the course as a kind of demarcation line that underscores the incompatibilities between the modern and spiritual world. He does so in the most satiric manner, when he has Father Urban struck in the head by his own bishop’s errant golf shot. The incident immediately drains the bishop of his enthusiasm for proprietary projects and Father Urban of his customary zeal.

Thwaite estate

Thwaite estate. Rural home of Mrs. Thwaite, a wealthy and invalid benefactress of the Clementine order, where Father Urban convalesces. Once he is outside the confining environment of St. Clement’s Hill and ensconced in the estate’s palatial surroundings, his thoughts turn to more worldly matters, particularly his fondness for fashionable office space. His stay at Mrs. Thwaite’s estate allows him time to ponder where he might have been–“in some kind of business you could breathe in, perhaps heavy machinery, much of it going overseas–operating out of a spacious office on Michigan Avenue–with a view of the lake.” Earlier in the novel, a prestigious office site had been donated to the Clementines as a result of Father Urban’s efforts. However, his idea to decorate it with luxurious furnishings as a lure to wealthy visitors is squelched by his superior. The office as a dual symbol of commercial success and unbridled greed is effectively utilized by Powers to demonstrate the recurring theme of conflicting priorities.

Sources for Further StudyEvans, Fallon, and Thomas Merton. J. F. Powers. St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1968. A collection of articles including four on Morte d’Urban, one by the famous Trappist writer Thomas Merton.Hagopian, John V. J. F. Powers. Twayne’s United States Authors 130. New York: Twayne, 1968. This concise examination of Powers’s life and work (to the mid-1960’s) emphasizes the acuteness and subtlety of his observations of Catholic clerical life, especially as presented in Morte d’Urban.Henault, Marie. “The Saving of Father Urban.” America 108 (March 2, 1963): 290-292. A study of the Arthurian references in the novel.Hinchcliffe, Arnold P. “Nightmare of Grace.” Blackfriars 45 (February, 1964): 61-69. A consideration of what Hinchliffe calls the “Mammon of Iniquity” theme in the novel.Merton, Thomas. “Morte d’Urban: Two Celebrations.” Worship 36 (November, 1962): 645-650. Defends Powers against charges of anticlericalism and calls the novel a work of genius.Settimo, Scott R. “What Fellowship Has Light with Darkness? A Carmelite Reading of J. F. Powers.” Master’s thesis. St. Benedict, Oreg.: Mount Angel Seminary, 2005. Analyzes works of J. F. Powers in relation to their treatment of progress, or the lack of such, in spritual growth.Sisk, John P. “Morte d’Urban, by J. F. Powers.” Renascence 16 (1963): 101. According to Hagopian, Sisk’s review of the novel is one of the best early assessments.Tartt, Donna. “The Glory of J. F. Powers: A Writer’s Work Is Resurrected.” Harper’s 301, no. 1802 (July, 2000): 69-74. A positive reassessment of Powers’s work two decades after he had achieved the pinnacle of his production and critical acclaim.
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