First person

Ann B. Davis was much, much more than 'Alice'

Soon after its birth, the MTV network tried to branch out with "Remote Control," a hipper than hip game show. Contestants were quizzed on media trivia including a category called, "Alive or dead?" The goal was to guess the current status of pop-culture icons.

One day in 1988 the name "Ann B. Davis" popped up on the screen. Hitting the buzzer, a contestant shouted, "Dead!"

With a classic double take, Davis shouted, "I am not!" at the den television in the 26-room redstone house she shared with a dozen or more other Christians in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Wrong, said the host. The actress -- who achieved media immortality as Alice, the wisecracking housekeeper on The Brady Bunch" -- was now a nun, living in Colorado.

"I am not a nun," shouted Davis, with a dramatic pout.

The confusion was understandable and Davis knew it. It was hard for outsiders to grasp the spiritual changes that caused this tough-willed and very private women to put her career on the back burner and, in 1976, join a commune of evangelical Episcopalians, led by Colorado Bishop William C. Frey and his wife, Barbara. She stayed with the household as it moved to an Anglican seminary in Western Pennsylvania steel country and, finally, to the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, where she died last Sunday (June 1) at age 88.

As the years passed, she opened up and shared her story with religious groups using the title, "Where I am, where I was and how I got from there to here." I came to know her while reporting for The Rocky Mountain News and through a close friendship with one of the bishop's sons, when we attended the same parish. That meant spending time (an awkward journalistic situation, with guidelines cleared by editors) in the bishop's house and, of course, meeting the woman many called "Ann B."

The death of an Orthodox visionary -- in America

When major religious leaders die, it's traditional that public figures -- secular and sacred -- release letters expressing sorrow and sending their condolences to the spiritual sheep who have suddenly found themselves without a shepherd. This is precisely what Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis did, acting as chairman of the assembly of America's Eastern Orthodox bishops, after he heard about the death of Metropolitan Philip Saliba -- the leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America for a half century. His letter was kind and gracious, but contained a hint of candor that spoke volumes.

"For more than 15 years I have had the opportunity and privilege to work closely with Metropolitan Philip," wrote Archbishop Demetrios, noting that the Antiochian leader served as vice-chairman of the assembly of bishops. Metropolitan Philip was a pastor to his people, but he also "passionately supported a common witness to our Orthodox faith in the world. It is well known that he spoke his mind openly on a number of important issues and would often challenge inactivity surrounding serious issues, which he felt Orthodoxy could address in unique and important ways."

That's one way to put it.

Metropolitan Philip -- who died March 19th -- was more than an advocate for Orthodox life and faith. He was more than a pragmatic strategist who helped his flock grow from 66 parishes to 275, while opening youth camps and a missions and evangelism office.

The Lebanese-born archbishop was also a fierce advocate of Orthodox unity in the United States, to whatever degree possible among Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians and others. After living his adult life in this land, he made the controversial decision in the mid-1980s to embrace waves of evangelical converts (I am one of them). These converts affected all levels of his church including, as much as anywhere else, in seminaries and, thus, at Orthodox altars.

That was the backdrop to the symbolic moment when Archbishop Demetrios surprised Metropolitan Philip by asking him to make some off-the-cuff remarks at the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.

"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip, when I interviewed him for an "On Religion" column soon after that event.

Rather than speaking in Byzantine code, Metropolitan Philip bluntly addressed the delegates as Americans, not Greeks. He said he thought it was time to challenge ecclesiastical ties that continued to bind their churches in the new world to those in the old. Then he marched straight into a minefield, bringing greetings from the Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, a few days earlier, had unanimously approved what many Greeks have long desired -- a constitution granting them more control of their church in North America.

"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he told me. "We cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."

A press aide for the Greek archdiocese noted: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."

Part of the problem was that Philip was intentionally calling to mind the 1994 gathering in Ligonier, Pa., when America's Orthodox bishops boldly declared: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts … moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."

That effort failed. Two decades later, Metropolitan Philip left instructions that he was to be buried at the Antiochian Village camp near Ligonier, where young people will visit his grave for generations to come.

"This faith was to remain the best kept secret in America because of our laziness, we Orthodox, because we have been busy taking care of our little ethnic ghettos," said Philip, during one of the first rites ushering an entire evangelical congregation into his archdiocese.

"It is time that we let this light shine. American needs the Orthodox faith. I said to the Evangelical Orthodox in these past Sundays, I said, 'Welcome home.'"

Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps Howard)

Mother Teresa was having a bad press conference.

Journalists gathered for her 1989 Denver visit seemed determined to ask a litany of questions about her views on every imaginable issue in world affairs and American politics. The soft-spoken, yet often stern, nun seemed confused and kept stressing that her Missionary Sisters of Charity would always focus on the needs of the needy and the sick, including those suffering from AIDS.

One television reporter even asked if the day's main ecumenical event -- a "Celebrate Life with Mother Teresa" prayer rally -- would include a Mass. Once again, the tiny sister from Calcutta was confused. How could there be a Catholic Mass if the rally included Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostal believers and clergy from other churches?

"We will pray together," she said. "That is what we can do."

I raised my hand and asked another question that I knew she might not want to answer. I had heard that she had privately toured Northeast Denver, an impoverished area hit hard by gangs. Might she open a mission there?

Mother Teresa smiled, but gently deflected the question, noting that Denver had recently been added at the end of a long list of dioceses worldwide making just such a request.

What happened next was a singular moment in my journalism career, one that awkwardly blurred the lines between the personal and the professional.

Why bring this up right now? For more than 25 years, I have written this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service, a streak that ends this week with the closing of the wire service. My "On Religion" column will continue to be carried by Universal Uclick, formerly known as the Universal Press Syndicate.

During this quarter of a century, readers have asked one question more than any other: Who is the most remarkable person you've met while covering religion? That's a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L'Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

My answer centers on what happened after that Denver press conference, after Mother Teresa -- now the Blessed Mother Teresa, one step from being recognized as a saint -- finished her private prayers before the ecumenical service.

The clergy taking part in the rally were gathered in a holding room deep inside the arena and, eventually, security guards moved through to remove the reporters. I was in a corner, hidden behind the Greek Orthodox cathedral dean in his flowing vestments. The guards missed me.

Suddenly, Mother Teresa entered, spending a few moments with each of the clergy. When a priest tried to introduce me, she took my hand. "Yes," she said, smiling. "He asked me earlier about starting a house here." We talked briefly and she said she was surprised that a reporter had asked that question.

Hours later, as the rally ended, Denver's archbishop followed protocol and gave the elderly nun several gifts from the people of Colorado. Then she raised her hand to silence the crowd.

"I have a gift for you," she said, gesturing toward members of her team. "I will give you my sisters and I hope that, together, we are going to do something beautiful for God."

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford -- now a cardinal in Rome -- flushed red with shock. The work to build a Denver mission would begin immediately, rather than many years in the future.

Mother Teresa's gift was the story of the day and my editors kept asking a blunt question: What led to her shocking decision?

Well, I had a quote from Stafford, who said: "She is a spontaneous person. Maybe we will never know why she made her decision now."

But I also told them about my strange encounter with the woman that millions already considered a living saint. Could I include this factual material in a news report, even though I was directly involved in what transpired?

What happened really happened. The quotes were in my reporter's notebook.

Nevertheless, we decided to play the main story straight.

The problem was that I was the eyewitness. I mean, I was there and so was Mother Teresa, the most remarkable person I have encountered in my journalism work.