Alexander, Gregory. “The Holy Mark: The Tragedy of a Fallen Priest”, Publish Green, 2014.
Marked by God
It has often been said that someone who is born and raised in New Orleans remains a New Orleanian all of his life and I believe that is true. I still find myself anxious to read writers from the city and every year around Mardi Gras time I feel a bit homesick. It was perfect timing when I received “The Holy Mark” by Gregory Alexander. I was sitting in my apartment in Massachusetts and looking out of my window at snow, snow and more snow and in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is in full swing.
Many of you might know that New Orleans is a predominately Catholic city in which the church plays a huge part in the lives of the citizens and the culture of the place. It was no surprise that the main character of “The Holy Mark” is a priest. It was also no surprise, knowing New Orleans and its penchant for corruption, that Father Tony is a corrupt priest. We learn early on that Tony should never have become a priest—“Perhaps Father Tony should have never been a priest. With his family’s money, courtesy of his grandfather’s ties to the New Orleans mob, he could have pursued his interest in food or literature or even worked with needy young boys—only free of all those silly Church strictures”.
There had never been any priests in the Miggliore family and the matriarch, Tony’s grandmother, was not happy about this. When Tony was born she claimed to have seen a mark on his head that she said was a sign from God that set his destiny for him. Tony was to become a priest.
Right away Tony had problems. His uncle was jealous that Tony found favor with his grandmother and decides to never forgive him for that, the uncle’s ties to the Catholics of the city were strong and he would use them to destroy Tony. Tony, however, is determined to best his uncle and the church and he will do whatever it takes to do so.
In fact, Tony eventually became a symbol of a man who used Catholicism to justify his behavior in taking advantage of the vulnerable and the innocent and this is certainly not new, as we have seen time and again in recent years. Perhaps that is what makes this such a fascinating read—the reality that it gives us. In my own life, I spent a year teaching at a private school run by the Christian Brothers and I was aware of the abuse going on there but it took over twenty years before any of the Catholic brothers were put on trial and now there are several still doing time for what they did to their students. They were clever—I even went with one of the brothers and several students on a European tour and the sex was going on then but no one said a word.
It is known that the Catholic Church is not only a religious organization but a political one as well and we certainly see this at the recent election of the new pope. I can remember when the church banned the movie of “Baby Doll” by Tennessee Williams on the ground that it depicted an immoral relationship (while at the same time, several priests were molesting young boys). The church has always known scandal but is rich enough to buy its way out.
Gregory Alexander is a brave writer—he takes on the church and exposes it through Father Tony. This is a story that represents what Southern literature has been known for—stories of power, family and revenge and it will have you turning the pages as fast as possible. I read almost all 300 pages in one sitting and then wanted more. This is more than just a novel about the church—it is also a look at the culture of Italian Americans. Father Tony finds himself caught between his family, his Southern upbringing and his church. New Orleans has always been a city with secrets and we see some of them here and we also meet a character that we probably should hate but find ourselves dragged into his charisma even as he molests young boys. This is also a story that you do not want to believe but find yourself facing the evidence. The human condition is on trial here and the reader can deliver the verdict.
There will be readers who will find this book to be overly critical of the Church but then there are also those who do not believe the stories of molestation that have taken place in the church for its entire existence.
But it is not just the Church that does not look good in the novel. The city of New Orleans is seen as having had the potential to become a great city but because of her own flaws did not (and one of those flaws is the Church). New Orleans seems to always have corruption associated with her and again at the present time we are seeing that with former mayor Nagin being found guilty of taking bribes in the aftermath of Katrina. This story is set between 1994 and 1959, a time before the Internet and mass media so it was somewhat easier to be corrupt.