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Remembering Florence Henderson

flohoEvery now and then, we meet someone along our life journey whose stay is brief, but whose impact is brilliant. Such was my encounter with Florence Henderson, the much-loved actress who brought joy to family, friends, and fans around the world.

This past August, I sat down with Florence for an interview with St. Anthony Messenger magazine. I had read of her great love for her Catholic faith, her deep prayer life, and how both served as pillars of comfort and support throughout her life.

From the moment she introduced herself, “Hi, Rita, I’m Florence. Thank you so much for wanting to interview me,” her warmth, sincerity, and good humor filled every space in the room. Over the next two hours, I got to know a woman who, through her triumphs and her challenges, her missteps and her glories, had served God her entire life as a powerful witness to the Gospel message.

Florence Henderson is known the world over as a stage, film, and television star, a renowned singer and entertainer, a spokesperson, speaker, and humanitarian. Over the two hours we were together, we spoke of many things: her difficult childhood and youth spent in poverty, her loving memories of the Benedictine nuns who cared for her, educated her, and taught her to sing. She spoke of the dear best friend whose family played a pivotal role in her future; the priest who sent her off to New York City with a crucifix he had hand carved for her, which followed her everywhere and still hung in her house. We also spoke of her soaring career, threatening illnesses, the loss of family and friends, her deep prayer life, and her tremendous work for charities including the Catholic Apostolate and the Benedictine nuns of Ferdinand, Indiana. Florence spoke of her work in television and the landmark social and cultural impact of The Brady Bunch, her status as one of the top ten most trusted commercial spokespersons, her work with senior citizen groups, and so much more.

Yet when asked to consider her life as a whole, she did not hesitate to offer. “I am a mother. That has always been my greatest, my most satisfying, my most enjoyable role, my most important role. My children and grandchildren, their well-being and happiness have always been the most important things in my life. I am so proud of them.”

Listening to one incredible story after another about her life, I could not help but feel a tremendous amount of admiration, respect, and affection for a woman I had previously known only as a Hollywood character, but whose flesh-and-blood experience left me joy-filled.

Losing a Legend

When her sudden passing on Thanksgiving Day was announced, the depth of emotion felt by so many across the nation came as no surprise to me. Though a celebrity, Florence was, at heart, a relatable woman who could connect to people on the most basic and humane of levels.

During our interview, Florence shared her feelings concerning death. She told me she took great comfort in Psalm 23 which, along with a whole list of other prayers, she recited every morning and evening. When I asked her what she would like to say to God, she replied, “Thank you. I love you. I hope you’re glad to see me.” And what would she like God to say to her? “Thank you. I love you. I’ve always been glad to see you.”

Florence shared with me her devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague. After our interview I sent her a prayer card and a small infant statue, both of which she told me she would be sure to take along with her on her many excursions. I was happy knowing that a small part of me would remain with her.

My last conversation with Florence took place in early November. She was as happy, upbeat, and funny as ever. While we have lost a woman of great goodness, I take comfort in knowing that she is enjoying an eternal reward far greater than any earthly existence could provide. Florence is singing with the angels now, which only seems right since she was, after all, an angel among us.

Below is a portion of Rita E. Piro’s exclusive interview with Florence Henderson for St. Anthony Messenger. This was the last full-length magazine interview she gave.

Though her career has spanned over six decades, Florence was best known for her role as Carol Brady in the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch. Originally broadcast from 1969 to 1974, the program has never been off the air and has been syndicated in over 122 countries. It remains one of the most beloved and most watched family shows of all time.

As matriarch of the famous blended brood of TV brothers and sisters, Florence dispensed weekly doses of understanding, compassion, love, and guidance, all mixed with a healthy helping of humor. She remained proud of it til the end of her life. “I frequently am contacted by people who want to thank me for The Brady Bunch,” she said. “Whether they grew up during the show’s original television run or are brand-new fans of the present generation, they tell me how important The Brady Bunch has been in their lives. I wanted to portray Carol as a loving, fun, affectionate mother, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people who maybe had the same situation I did growing up. To think that something I was involved in had such a positive effect on the lives of so many people is satisfying beyond words.”

Of all the parts Florence has ever played, however, it was her role as mom to her own four children—Barbara, Joseph, Robert, and Elizabeth—that was her most cherished and satisfying. Despite the demands of her career, Florence put family first: “My children and their happiness have always been my greatest concern.” She never missed a holiday, graduation, birthday, or sacrament, even if it meant flying in for the event in the morning, then flying out that same evening to fulfill a work obligation.

During the filming of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles, Florence returned to the family’s New York home each weekend. During summers the family rented a home in California so they could be together. Whenever possible, Florence included her children in her work as extras or in children’s parts in the touring productions in which she was starring, including South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and The Sound of Music, as well as in some commercials. The children even made brief appearances on a few episodes of The Brady Bunch. Florence joyfully described her children to us as “the nicest people you could ever meet” and “very spiritual people.” She added proudly, “Being a mom makes you far more compassionate. You have more empathy for people, more love. I was always taught to say thank you and I’m very grateful. And my kids have that quality, too.”

From time to time, Florence found herself questioning her faith, mainly in instances unrelated to her career. As a new mother, she experienced repeated bouts of postpartum depression. During the mid-1960s she was diagnosed with a hereditary bone deformity of the middle ear and needed surgery to prevent deafness. Stage fright and insomnia have also been present in her life. The loss of family and friends, especially her siblings, weighed heavily upon her, as well as a natural fear of her own mortality.

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Rita E. Piro is the author of many books and articles, including “The Legacy of St. Maria Goretti,” which was published in the July 2016 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.