“Little, very little, be very little before God.”
—St. Jeanne Jugan
My friend Cathy’s family caught the Frank Lloyd Wright bug this summer. “We just went to the Dana-Thomas House, which was wonderful,” she wrote me recently, “and the kids now like his work, too.” Cathy knows I have the same bug, although my own affinity for Wright’s architecture goes way back to my Chicago days when I had the privilege of regularly strolling past the exquisite Robie House. “That’s already on my growing FLW visit list,” Cathy remarked when I mentioned it. For now, however, she and her children have taken to the internet to research the Wright homes right here in South Bend.
Did you catch the plural? Believe it or not, there are two – count ‘em, two! – Frank Lloyd Wright gems in our humble post-industrial town. That has to be some kind of per capita record. And while one of the two is in the historic district, the other is tucked away in an otherwise nondescript south side neighborhood – and therein lies a tale.
You see, our pool is in that very neighborhood, and we drive right past the Wright house whenever we go for a swim. I can recall seeing it for the first time – a low-slung brick structure with a cantilevered balcony and odd little windows facing the street. “I’ll bet that was a convent once,” I remember saying, pointing it out to my kids. “Either that, or maybe a funeral home.” Whatever it had been in the past, it was evidently a residence in the present, with its everyday vehicles in the driveway and lack of signage. Still, the quirky architecture got under my skin, and whenever we drove past it, I couldn’t help wondering about its story.
Then, one day, we were driving home from a swim, and I spied a woman working in the convent/funeral home’s yard. “I’m stopping to find out about this place,” I told my damp children. “Noo-ooo,” they cried, “don’t! It’s embarrassing!” Too late. I stopped the van in front and approached the ostensible homeowner. “Excuse me,” I said. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m curious about your house – it’s very striking. Do you mind if I ask if it used to be a convent?”
“Nope,” she replied. “It was built by Frank Lloyd Wright.”
I was stunned – an architectural landmark located in this out-of-the-way nowhere? No historical markers, no neon, no nothing? “You’re kidding,” I blurted out, and then, back-pedaling, “amazing!”
“Would you like to see inside?” the woman asked, overlooking my crass remark. I think she cut me some slack after observing my cute kids hanging out the van windows.
“Absolutely,” I replied, and I fetched my brood. “Come on,” I told them. “You won’t want to miss this.”
The woman ushered us in, and we had the unexpected pleasure of briefly viewing the interior of an American treasure: the 1948 Herman T. Mossberg Residence, with its spacious central room, cathedral windows, and airy floor plan. I’m sure I appreciated it more than my children, but, even so, Frank Lloyd Wright has become an established part of our family lore ever since. In fact, we developed a summertime ritual that hearkens back to that day: If we’re heading over for a swim, and I don’t say “Frank Lloyd Wright” as we pass the home, then everybody in the car gets money for a poolside snack – and, given my waning memory, they’re rarely disappointed.
It’s a fun tradition, but it also highlights the relative obscurity of this exceptional building. No doubt, there are folks who live nearby who’ve been passing the Mossberg home their whole lives without any awareness of its distinctive character, and, for me, that adds plenty to the building’s appeal. Whereas Chicago’s Robie House and other Wright creations have become conspicuous destinations for tourists, the Mossberg Residence is essentially anonymous, and thus it retains its residential ethos. “That is the true beauty of this home,” writes FLW aficionado Peter Beers. I couldn’t agree more.
There’s an object lesson in humility here, I think. Wright’s Prairie School of architecture was grounded in the idea that buildings ought to be integrated into their surroundings and not stick out. “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything,” he insisted. “It should be of the hill.” And while Wright intended this principle to apply primarily to physical characteristics, it can apply to abstract ones as well – as in the case of the Mossberg structure, whose intrinsic loveliness is only enhanced by the diminishment of its famed designer. Wright succeeded to the degree that the home was more about the Mossbergs than it was about Frank Lloyd Wright.
In spiritual terms, nobody put this idea better than John the Baptist: “He must increase,” St. John said of our Lord, and “I must decrease.” That’s a constant battle for most of us, as confessors and spiritual directors know all too well. “My worst enemy is within me – this blind, puny, selfish self,” writes Fr. Anthony Paone. “Only when I act for God alone, will my action be at its best.” It sounds so simple – so direct and straightforward – but how did the saints do it? How can I do it?
As in most arduous endeavors, we need patterns and guides, and I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite Mossberg-like role models: Bonaventure F. Broderick.
Ordained a priest in Connecticut in 1896, Broderick’s clerical career led him to Cuba where he served as a secretary, pastor, and seminary rector. In 1903, Broderick was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop and, later, appointed coadjutor bishop for Cuba’s Archdiocese of San Cristóbal de la Habana. Due to a falling out with the Holy See over financial matters, Broderick resigned his episcopal position and returned to the United States. His public disgrace was followed by chilly reception back home, and Baltimore’s Cardinal Gibbons effectively sidelined the repatriated prelate with no appointment, no pastoral duties, and no income other than a small stipend provided by Rome.
That’s humility enough, but here’s the thing: In order to make ends meet, Broderick had to scramble for a livelihood, and he eventually ended up in Millbrook, New York, where he ran a gas station for over 30 years – a gas station! Thirty years! No sexual misconduct, no scandal, nothing like that. Instead, this heir to the Apostles fell victim to mere personality clashes and turf battles, and his ecclesiastical exile compelled him to pump gas and hawk auto parts for decades on end.
How he conducted himself during those thirty-odd years is largely a mystery, although the dearth of details is itself an indication that he tried to stay out of the limelight, despite his episcopal consecration. Probably he said private Masses, and maybe even provided some spiritual counsel to the good people of Milltown – who knows? In any case, it wasn’t until Francis Spellman took the helm of the Archdiocese of New York in 1939 that Broderick’s irregular situation was corrected. The Archbishop personally interviewed Broderick at the filling station, restored him to a public ecclesial role, and appointed him as vicar of religious for the Archdiocese. “It is pleasant to record that when the strange career of Bonaventure Broderick came to an end in November, 1943,” notes Church historian John Tracy Ellis, “Spellman saw to it that he was accorded all the honors that befitted his episcopal rank.”
The lesson here is twofold: First, Broderick’s saga is a potent reminder that we can have no idea what’s going on in the lives around us. Everybody has a story – brimming with heroic struggles, triumphs over adversity, ups and down, sin and salvation, the works! – and yet the details are rarely on the surface. In our routine hurly-burly, there’s just no telling when we might be encountering a saint in the making or an “angel unawares” – or even a displaced bishop for that matter – and so we do well to tread lightly, live mercy, and strive to ascribe the best motives and intentions to everyone we meet.
The second lesson is the first in reverse: We are all called to aspire to that same humility of hiddenness ourselves. “The last will be first, and the first last,” Jesus tells his disciples in one place, and in another, “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s a theme that constantly crops up in his preaching, and you get the impression that he had a pretty good idea that this would be tough for us. Nevertheless, through prayer, availing ourselves of the sacraments, and painstaking practice, we know that incremental progress is feasible. “With God,” Jesus assures us, “all things are possible” – even the shrinking of our bulbous egos!
President Harry S. Truman professed this idea as well. “It is amazing what you can accomplish,” he is credited with saying, “if you do not care who gets the credit.” It’s so true – although there’s an irony here. The actual originator of that saying turns out to be a Jesuit priest named Fr. Strickland – and we don’t even know his first name!
Somehow, that seems just about right.