A Jesuit's Journey:
Br. James Small, SJ
March 28, 2022 — On January 10, 2022, Br. James Small, SJ, turned 100 years old.
Twenty years ago, just before he turned 80, I wrote and published a biography of his life called The Small Things. I think often of that experience. The privilege of being able to chronicle someone’s life. The gift of time to sit and ask question after question after question. The almost laughable absurdity of Br. Small agreeing to participate.
I approached Br. Small with the idea during my junior year at Georgetown University, shortly after Good Morning America had run a segment on him. I was an English major and had been considering pursuing a career in writing, though I really didn’t know what that looked like.
I first met Br. Small when I was in middle school and attended free art classes that he offered Saturday mornings at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois.
I came to know him better as a student at Loyola Academy, where he’d been working as a carpenter and artist-in-residence since 1969. His kindness and generosity struck me as remarkable. The fact that producers at Good Morning America also found his deliberately simple yet profoundly generous life noteworthy made me think the story might appeal to a larger audience.
The naïve 19-year-old version of me believed two things. First, every single person who had seen the Good Morning America piece would buy the book. Second, Br. Small would be honored to participate. With the benefit of hindsight I know the first isn’t true. I’ve never asked Br. Small about the second. It’s possible that he worried it would be a nuisance or that I wouldn’t finish and it would prove a waste of time, which he could have spent on his paintings, which have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for Loyola Academy fundraisers. Maybe he worried I’d do a lousy job. And given the inherent humility with which he’s lived his life, I suspect he also would have just as soon not had the attention. But, in typical fashion, he said yes.
Brother Small’s 100th birthday prompted me to flip through The Small Things again, and I was reminded of his background. He was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1922 and grew up during the Great Depression. He served in the navy and in the Chicago Police Department before deciding to become a Jesuit brother. He spent some 40 years at Loyola before “retiring” to Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan.
I was also reminded of why I felt compelled to write about him. Just as it did twenty years ago, Br. Small’s life struck me as remarkable. His life is profoundly generous. He obviously has made the decision to devote his life to the service of others as a Jesuit. But the way he proceeded through each of his days was also special. His affection for others, his interest in their lives, and his willingness to make time for them was frankly amazing. All those things are small things. But they were done so consistently and sincerely that they touched the lives of thousands of people at Loyola Academy—students, parents, employees. So many of them have stories about how Br. Small made their lives better.
I’m particularly grateful that he said yes when I asked to write about him. It was a generous act. While our efforts didn’t sell millions of books, as I reflect on the past twenty years, I know all the time we spent has helped me be a better parent, husband, coach, and businessman.
Brother Small’s true legacy is the number of people who are living lives that are better—as parents, spouses, teachers, professionals, students, and siblings—just for having known him.