The Rev. Rick Curry embraced his disability as a gift and used it to empower thousands.

When Richard Jerome Curry was born without a right forearm and hand, his mother wept, and his father fled to a bar near the family home in Southwest Philadelphia. The missing limb would define him, people told the boy - he could never be a soldier or a doctor or a priest.

The difference did define him, but in no way that his parents or early teachers had imagined.

After spending much of his life as a Jesuit brother, Father Curry received a special dispensation from the Vatican to become a priest at age 66. He earned a doctorate. And the theater he founded gave combat-disfigured veterans a way to reclaim their lives.

Father Curry, 72, died Saturday, Dec. 19, of heart failure at Manresa Hall, a Philadelphia retirement community for Jesuits.

"Any time you raise the human spirit, you're working in an atmosphere of faith," Father Curry told The Inquirer in 2009. "When you are giving tools to persons of disabilities to communicate with one another, you're dealing with something very sacred."

Father Curry graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School and St. Joseph's University, where he earned a degree in theater - inspired, perhaps, by the acting lessons his father insisted he begin at age 6 as a way to prepare for work as a lawyer and to instill confidence in the boy.

He didn't need much help on that score. From a young age, Father Curry regarded his missing forearm as an important part of who he was.

When Father Curry was a schoolboy, his parents thought it was a good idea to take him to see the preserved right arm of the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, which was on display in Philadelphia. His classmates prayed for him to be healed.

Father Curry kissed the glass case where the arm was preserved, but he prayed for his own arm to stay as it was, he later told the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author.

In 1977, he showed up at an audition for a mouthwash commercial. The receptionist laughed at Father Curry, taking him for part of a prank.

"I was stunned. I was hurt," Father Curry once told an audience of schoolboys at St. Joseph's Prep. "There was no way I could convince her that having one arm wouldn't stop me from gargling mouthwash."

The next day, the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped was born. At campuses in New York and Maine, the theater gave disabled veterans a way to find their voices again; Father Curry often said that those with handicaps needed an outlet to tell their stories.

Father Curry earned his master's and doctorate in theater from Villanova and New York Universities. Later, he would also teach at Georgetown University, run Wounded Warriors, a writing program for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, write two cookbooks, and start a bakery to equip veterans with a new life skill.

He also appeared on the TV show Monk, making a guest appearance as a one-armed psychiatrist.

Faith was a constant in his life. He spent most of his adult years as a Jesuit brother - he joined the order after high school - but when he was in his early 60s, an encounter with a veteran at Walter Reed Army Medical Center put him on another path.

The angry veteran, a triple amputee, poured his heart out to Father Curry, then asked for absolution. Father Curry explained that he had not been called to be a priest.

"I'm calling you," the young man said.

The road to ordination was not always smooth. Canon law requires a priest to have two hands to celebrate Mass. He finally received a dispensation, and was ordained in 2009 after earning a master's at the Washington Theological Union.

Intelligent, funny, and gregarious, Father Curry was a captivating speaker. He loved people and loved to tell stories, said his cousin Jim Curry.

"He was a little bit of a showman," Curry said. "And he was a big inspiration. I consider him one of my greatest teachers."

Father Curry also is survived by a sister, Sister Denise Curry.

Friends may call Saturday, Jan. 2, at 9 a.m. at Holy Trinity Church, 3513 N St. N.W., Washington, where a Funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m.

215-854-5146 @newskag