Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’ June 2, 2014

One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

For the last several years Davis had lived in San Antonio with the family of retired Episcopal bishop William Frey, a close friend.

“She was a wonderful, smart, funny woman,” Frey told The Times on Sunday. “She was Alice.”

And later there was this:

Since 1976, Davis lived with an Episcopal community, first in Denver, then in western Pennsylvania, finally settling in the Texas hill country near San Antonio. She worked in a homeless shelter in Denver and devoted herself to prayer and Bible study but took occasional acting roles through the years.

“I never heard a large voice from above saying, ‘Get out of show business, Ann,'” she told Newsday in 1995. “I just found that my priorities had changed and I knew that I needed some space.”

That’s pretty good. But if you didn’t know the background, what would you think a moving “Episcopal community” was all about? Would you have connected the Frey reference to the “community” language? It kind of sounds like Ann B. simply retired, solo, to the San Antonio area with the bishop and his family and that was that. And what was up with her time in the economically depressed environs of steel country in Western Pennsylvania?

I know, I know. That would have required another sentence, maybe even two. However, it’s hard to understand the truly radical changes in the life of this Hollywood figure without knowing the work and the life she elected to embrace, as well as the life from which she, partially, walked away.

The language in The New York Times obit was just as fragmented, or even more so:

In the mid-1970s Ms. Davis became involved with an evangelical religious group headed by Bill C. Frey, a retired Episcopal bishop. At her death she had been living with Bishop Frey and his wife while continuing to act from time to time on television and stage.

Actually, he was not retired in the mid-1970s — no way. And how, as an outsider, would you interpret the bland “an evangelical religious group” language? At least the reference to the ’70s gives readers a sense of how long this “group” existed, that is if readers connect that fact with, decades later, the reference to Davis “living with Bishop Frey and his wife.”

CNN very quickly offered this:

(CNN) — Ann B. Davis, known for her role as housekeeper Alice Nelson on “The Brady Bunch,” died Sunday, close friend Bishop William Frey said. She was 88.

According to Frey, Davis fell and hit her head Saturday morning in her bathroom. She suffered a subdural hematoma and never regained consciousness. …

Frey, who knew Davis for 38 years, said fans often told her that they felt like they’d been raised by the character of Alice. “Look how well you turned out,” she would reply.

“All of us wish we had an Alice. I wish I had an Alice,” Davis told People magazine in 1992.

“What you see on ‘The Brady Bunch’ was who she was,” Frey said. “She was a very faithful Christian person.”

Davis mostly retired from show business in the late 1970s to settle down in an Episcopal community.

“I’m convinced we all have a God-shaped space in us, and until we fill that space with God, we’ll never know what it is to be whole,” she told People.

Please let me know if you see any quality tributes in the mainstream press. As you would expect, there was a lengthy feature produced by the Episcopal News Service.

Memory eternal, Ann B. You touched many, many lives — including thousands of homeless people and spiritual searchers who never connected your work with the bright lights of Hollywood.

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11 responses to “Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’”

  1. “And how, as an outsider, would you interpret the bland ‘an evangelical religious group’ language?” Honestly, I would think there was an error somewhere, because Episcopalians are not what we call “Evangelicals” today, nor have they been much noted for evangelization (which is today most often described with the negative term “proselytizing”) in recent decades.

  2. An interesting posting. According to some people Hollywood and the media world have more serious Christians in their midst than one would imagine. One reason this is a little known fact is because–even when someone like Davis dies– her faith gets little notice.
    One “mistake” in the posting was the comment that made it look like charismatic Christianity is of the past.
    However, just yesterday Pope Francis headlined a charismatic meeting of 50,000
    people in Rome.

    • No, that was a reference to the MOVEMENT era. Most would say it has simply soaked into the Catholic structures. It’s real. It’s permanent now.

      • No, it’s still a movement. Most mainstream Catholics don’t participate in or value the charismatic stuff. It shows up in diocesan events as a tip of the hat to people who like it, but most parishes don’t participate in that stuff. Could be different in California, though.
        I had a Jesuit cousin who was big on it – in particular parishes.

  3. The media I think doesn’t want to admit that deep Christian faith is known through one on one sharing and living out the life rather than seeking or attracting media or public acclaim. That sort of pilgrimage is of no interest to the press in general in my own estimation. Mother Teresa had it down pat: never use a sentence that doesn’t glorify Jesus! Even a Jewish friend who is now passed away, Madame. Rosina Lhevine used to say when praised in any way, “I give ALL the glory to God,” with her hands held up in the air.

  4. This is a wonderful post that reflects an important aspect of quality religion coverage; institutional memory. There are few, very few, left on the beat with the depth of background experience evident in this post. Sadly, I do not see a replacement generation staying with the beat long enough to gain the same depth of experience.

    • IRA:

      Thank you for your kind words. But one simple Google search for her would have yielded much — or at least some — of this info. The RELIGION sites had some of it. It was there, you just had to look.

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