Monsignor Francis L. Bradican could do a lot with a little.
In 1959, the Diocese of Richmond dispatched him to Northern Virginia with $1,000 in his pockets and general instructions to open a church in Springfield.
He found himself in an area in transition. Residential developments were beginning to sprout on rolling farmland -- growth fueled partly by a surge in military families and federal civil servants moving to the region, many of them Catholic.
His first step was to celebrate Mass -- anywhere. He found a split-level house with a small garage that he converted into a chapel. He filled the garage with rows of chairs, then stood at a table in the front, where he gave the homily.
"When he lifted the garage door, people knew the service was about to start," said Marge Baxa, who attended those first services. "You could set your clock by him."
What the garage-turned-chapel lacked in decor, he made up for with a palpable reverence and devotion to the sacrament, Baxa said.
"One of his favorite refrains was, 'A lifetime would be too short to render adequate thanks for Holy Communion,' " Baxa said.
It wasn't long before he found 27 acres off Old Keene Mill Road, a site where he planned to build St. Bernadette's Catholic Church, a school and a convent for the nuns who would be on the faculty. He had built a parish school once before, near Portsmouth, Va., and had excelled as its administrator. The lesson he learned there was that a first-rate school anchored the community and helped a parish to flourish. He was eager to try that again.
But there were stumbling blocks in Springfield. While contractors worked on the St. Bernadette's complex, parishioners wondered where they would meet for Mass. Bradican struck an agreement with officials at nearby Lee High School to conduct Mass -- and, in one instance, first Communion -- in its auditorium. And when the parish school wasn't ready to open for fall classes in 1960, he arranged to have a temporary school at Fort Belvoir.
While he successfully lobbied to get the nuns of the Daughters of Wisdom to fill most of the faculty positions, he was careful not to alienate the laity from helping run the parish office and school.
The attendance rolls at St. Bernadette's school, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grade, swelled to about 1,000 annually in the 1960s.
Bradican routinely dropped in on classes, establishing a rapport with students and faculty, said Baxa, who also taught at the school.
"He loved children," Baxa said, "which made it all the more painful for him to hear about the abuses of priests."
By most accounts, Bradican was a charismatic figure with movie-star good looks. His hair was gray even as a younger man. He had a ruddy complexion, a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye.
"He may not have looked like a disciplinarian, but he certainly was," Baxa said. "He had high standards for behavior and grades. He wasn't shy about telling the kids to straighten out if he thought they need a stern talking."
He did well academically at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Md., where he studied for the Diocese of Richmond. Encouraged by his mentor, Richmond Bishop Andrew Brennan, he continued his studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium and the North American College in Rome.
In Rome, he crossed paths with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII.
In 1961, the year the school opened, Bradican celebrated his 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. It was an especially significant milestone given that he nearly died even before his first pastoral assignment.
About the time of his ordination in Rome, he underwent surgery for an intestinal disorder and wasn't expected to survive, said Alfred Weinschenk, his nephew.
Church officials sent him to be with his family in his home town of Dunmore, Pa., where he regained his strength.
He was the youngest of 10 children born to a coal miner and his wife, who came to this country from County Mayo, a maritime community in Ireland.
Coming from such a large family, he made a point of spending time with his nieces, nephews and extended relatives, Weinschenk said.
After celebrating morning Christmas Mass, he filled his car with gifts and drove about five hours to spend the rest of the day with his relatives in eastern Pennsylvania.
At least twice a year, he flew to Ireland, where he reveled in family gatherings, reconnected with his ancestral homeland and reaffirmed his spiritual roots.
After he left St. Bernadette's in 1972, he served 14 years as pastor of St. Rita's Catholic Church in Alexandria, where "he took a very good situation and kept it going," said the Rev. Denis M. Donahue, the current pastor.
"He was beloved and did a good job here," Donahue said.
In accordance with canon law, Bradican retired at age 75 and eased into the role of elder statesman.
"He was respected [not only] for his intellectual wisdom but also for his practical experience," said the Rev. Thomas Ferguson, administrator at St. Bernadette's Church.
Bradican was visiting family in September when his health worsened and he had a stroke.
After being released from a hospital, he moved to a nursing home in Moscow, Pa., to be close to his family. He died March 31 at age 92.