SEVEN KEYS to a Christian Home
by Emerson Hynes
National Catholic Rural Life Conference
4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310-2199
Imprimatur: +Edward C. Daly, O.P., S.T.M.
Bishop of Des Moines
Emerson Hynes is a familiar figure of the Catholic Rural Life literary
landscape. It was he who in 1940 wrote our first pamphlet, "City Slickers
and Dumb Farmers." He edited our second one, "Farm-Family-Prosperity."
Emerson and Arleen his wife, are Catholic college graduates. Their six
youngsters, under seven years of age, are a joy to behold. Mr. and Mrs.
Hynes find time to attend a few Rural Life Conventions, and amidst the
busy life of their home, they write in behalf of the Catholic Rural Life
"The Seven Keys to a Christian Home" first appeared in the "Marianist"
under the title, "Building a Home." We are grateful to the editors for
permission to reprint it.
We believe that the very house we live in can lead us to temptation or
it can be an instrument of God's graces. The home must be a Sacramental.
It can be made so even in a materialistic era. Too many families break up
because they have purchased the house of a thousand gadgets with buttons
everywhere and a swarm of collectors every payday. Then there are no
children; then the wife has to work; then love does not grow deeper and
stronger as the years go on; then hell on earth; then the break up, then
the very high probability of losing one's soul.
We urge Church and State, banks, investment companies and even real
estate interests to help young couples in planning their homes and
building their nests along Christian lines.
Mr. and Mrs. Hynes present herewith The Seven Keys to a Christian
Home. It is a blueprint as well as a living reality.
Happy the man whose love and care,
A few paternal acres bound,
Happy to breathe his native air
On his own ground. (Alexander Pope.)
We are indebted to Mr. Gruen and Miss Stoner of "Better Homes and
Gardens" for the art work and proofreading, and to Sister Mary of the
Incarnation for editorial assistance.
SEVEN KEYS TO A CHRISTIAN HOME
It's lovely in Minnesota on a warm fall evening. It's better when your
house is atop a hill in the country, banked behind by a forest of birch
and oak and overlooking a valley split by a lazy creek and checked with
alternate patches of pasture and corn and grain stubble. It's peaceful and
quiet, and I am sitting in the easy chair reading the weekly collection of
papers and magazines. As if there weren't a thousand ways of knowing it,
the periodicals state that housing is one of the biggest national
"There are enough families," writes one expert, "to call forth a
million houses a year for the next ten years, and houses are what America
is eager to buy or rent."
That's a lot of houses, and those figures indicate that there are a
lot of unhappy people living in cramped quarters. That's too bad. But from
another standpoint, the figures symbolize the possibilities of a great
adventure that ten million families could have--planning and building a
What worries me is that apparently many of the first principles of
home-building have been lost in the battle for houses. There is a great
difference between a house and a home. A house, according to Webster, is
"a structure for human habitation"; but a home is defined as an "abode of
one's family.... The abiding place of the affections.... The social unit
or center formed by a family living together."
The principles of house-building concern the use of materials; the
problems concern the amount of lumber, brick, mortar, and pipe, and the
experience of a contractor. The principles of home-building are those of
providing a family social center; the problems are those of making it "the
abiding place of the affections."
A house is only a means to the end--a home. Every step in building a
house must be tested to determine whether it aids or hinders homemaking.
It is more important, therefore, to know the principles of home-making
than it is to secure land and materials. In practice, home-building and
home-making fuse. But in planning, they must be kept separate--and the
principles of home-making come first.
I think back on the ideas that governed our building seven years ago.
We were lucky enough to be near places and persons whence sound principles
could be learned. We drew from the writings of Father Vincent McNabb,
O.P., from the lectures of Monsignor Ligutti, from the tradition of
Benedictine monasticism, and from families who had built homesteads during
the depression. We also had three advantages then that the average young
couple today may not enjoy; building supplies and labor were relatively
easy to secure; my work was stable and so situated that we could build
either in a rural community, a town, or a small city; and we were able to
borrow $5,000 for financing.
Difficulties have increased tremendously in the postwar years, but
principles do not change. Circumstances may prevent achieving the ideal in
its fullness, but the ideal is still the guide.
At any rate, we made our decisions in terms of the following seven
principles, and we have not found cause to regret a single one. If you
disagree with some of the principles, it should still be valuable to
discuss them, for it is always true that the kind of house you build
should be the kind of home you want.
The principles that guided us are:
1. A home should be designed for family living.
2. A home should be independently owned.
3. A home should be built for permanency and growth.
4. A home should provide privacy.
5. A home should be part of a community.
6. A home should be a productive unit.
7. A home should be beautiful.
In bare outline that sounds like a simple list and perhaps not too
impressive! With a moment's reflection almost anyone could draw up as good
a set of principles. What is important is to start with such a list and
then discuss each point in terms of your own family and circumstances.
A few of the arguments and experiences referring to the principles
might be significant.
1. A home should be designed for family living.
Nothing is more obvious and nothing is more neglected than the need
for a home built to suit the family. A study of pioneer homes will show
that they were planned to fit the needs of that way of life. Gradually, we
have transformed the home from a unit for the family to an object for
The exterior design, the number and size of rooms, the kind and amount
of furnishings, the location of the house and of the rooms in it--all
these are influenced more by how it will look to outsiders than by the
service and convenience it will provide for the family. The home should
not be a depot or a furniture store; it is not meant to serve or to sell
In no way is the trend toward display-type houses so definite as in
the decrease in bedroom space for children and the increase in the size of
the living room. One commentator has declared that most of the modern
homes are "birth control houses," designed for families with one or two
children. Space, once allowed for a third and fourth bedroom, is devoted
to a hotel-lobby-type living room. Homes which are more than twenty-five
years old rarely have less than four bedrooms. Few of the modern standard
designs or structures provide that much space for children. Even if those
who are building have no children or have grown children, they should
think of future generations who will inhabit the house and allow
sufficient bedrooms for them.
Every feature of the house should be discussed in terms of the family.
Should there be a basement? Our experience has been that the basement
has given us the most valuable space for the lowest cost.
Should there be a second story?
Where should the entrance be?
Where should the bathroom be?
Should the dining room be combined with the kitchen? My wife believes
that it should be. Meals and "dishes" are important daily jobs, and she
does not want to be isolated from the family at these times. A separate
dining room, which multiplies the steps the wife has to make, is often
viewed as essential for "fancy" guests. But a guest worth entertaining
will not mind eating in the big kitchen with the family and sitting around
to visit before and after meals.
Where should the bedrooms be located? We were advised to have the
parental bedroom, the nursery bedroom, and bathroom on the same floor as
general living quarters. We did not appreciate the tremendous importance
of this arrangement until after the second baby arrived. Now it seems that
it would be almost impossible to take care of the children if any one of
these three rooms were on a different floor level.
No two families will, or should, plan their houses exactly alike. It
does not make much difference what the particular arrangement is, so long
as it is born of long study and planning about how to make the dwelling a
home for the family.
Think about how to enable this most intimate of societies to work,
eat, pray, talk, play, and study together. Forget about public opinion and
the fancy standards of occasional visitors. Remember that a workshop for
boys is more important than a basement bar; a utility room is more
important than an arty niche or a fireplace; and babies are more important
than extra space for bridge parties.
2. A home should be independently owned.
You might assume that everyone hopes to own his home and that only the
lack of money prevents the ideal. This assumption is far from the fact.
The value placed on home ownership has gradually decreased. For many the
convenience of apartment living and the ease of moving from one place to
another are more important than ownership. A recent book was written about
the hazards of owning one's house--and the book was a top-seller.
There was a time in the United States when nearly every family owned
its home, no matter how crude the dwelling was. The trend toward tenancy
has increased at every census, until in 1940 only 43.3 per cent of the
nation's families owned their homes. The percentage was much less in the
The housing shortage of recent years has forced many people to buy.
Since residential real estate mortgages have increased nearly six billion
dollars in the last seven years, it may be assumed that more families are
owners today than in 1940. Still the sum total does not include more than
about half the number of American families.
In face of these figures it is necessary to assert the value of
ownership. The Catholic Church has always defended personal or private
ownership; recent popes have repeatedly advocated reforms to secure it.
According to Pope Pius XII, "nature itself has closely joined private
property with the existence of human society and its true civilization,
and in a very special manner with the existence and development of the
family." He called upon "all public standards" and especially the State to
preserve and increase family ownership.
Ownership provides the owner with more security of shelter than
renting could, and security is one of the greatest needs of a growing
family. It gives the owner a sense of responsibility--to maintain
ownership, to add improvements, and to make repairs.
Ownership also elicits personal responsibility toward society from the
owner; as Thomas Jefferson believed, only the man who has something to
lose will have sufficient interest in the well-being of the government to
be a democratic citizen. It furnishes the owner with a basis for
independence, especially if the homestead is productive; and economically
it represents the soundest type of saving. Ownership creates stability
for the family and enables the family to maintain continuous contact with
neighbors, parish, school, and community. It develops a family tradition
around the homestead or the gathering point, which descendants identify
with "back home."
Those are substantial arguments but there is still another-- one which
appeals to the heart. That is the pride and joy of ownership. To stand on
your own land, to plant and cultivate your own garden and flowers and
trees, to build your own fences, to paint and beautify your own house,
simply to stand back and survey your own property--here is a value the
worth of which cannot be measured.
If a man feels pride in possessing an automobile planned and built by
others in a factory hundreds of miles away, how much more pride can he
take in a homestead he has helped to improve!
Ownership is not easy for the average family to secure. For many years
its gleam is misted by a mortgage. But ownership is worth the struggle. It
is worth going without some of the conveniences you might like. It is
worth taking a less desirable location. It is worth being satisfied with a
less pretentious structure and furnishings than you might get by renting.
It is worth foregoing expensive entertainment, autos, or vacations.
Ownership is worth sacrifice because it has a value that none of the other
things have, a value big with spiritual overtones.
3. A home should be built for permanency and growth.
One of the criticisms of houses built in the last decade is that they
are constructed of inferior materials, thrown together with the hope that
they will last thirty years. A house should be built of the sturdiest
materials and planned to last for generations.
A house that is to become a home should accumulate memories for
generations. The bond of a family homestead is a great help to family
unity; families need root in the security of the old home even if some of
their members can return only occasionally.
Architects often estimate that the shell of a modern house is no more
than one-sixth the cost of the house. It is better to build that shell of
permanent materials and go without the fancy appointments, than to skimp
on the frame and include the gilding.
A well-constructed wooden house will last for generations, though
there is always hazard of fire. Lumber, however, has become a more
expensive building material than cinder or cement blocks. With modern
insulation and heating, the block or stone-walled home is just as
comfortable and much more permanent.
We built our home of cinder block with cement floors and cinder block
partitions. It's a story and a half high, 26 feet by 36 feet, and has a
full basement. Yet the total cost of all the cement and masonry work was
less than $2,000 in 1941. Add the cost of windows, doors, and roof, and
for about $1,000 more we had the essentials of a house which should last,
barring catastrophe, for centuries. Heating, water, electricity, and bath
at that time cost $1,500.
It is not necessary that everything be built when you move in. I am
not sure that it is even desirable. The fun of finishing the house which
has not been completed yet has been one of our deepest satisfactions.
Every room has more meaning and charm to us because whatever quality it
has, we gave it.
A house is brick and mortar when it is built. It becomes organic
through adoption by a family. As the family thinks and feels and grows, so
should the house reflect the change. One of our guests, a contractor,
recounted how he had built several hundred houses, row on row, varying
four basic designs. He built and furnished them completely, even to
planting the shrubbery outside, and--as he said--he had food in the
refrigerator when the families moved in. I cannot doubt his word, but I do
doubt that he sold those houses to normal people.
A house is like a child in many ways. And who would want to become the
parents of a full-grown Harvard student?
We moved into our house when the walls were up and the roof overhead.
No conveniences were available for several weeks. It was five years
before the labyrinth of electric wires was connected to a power line. It
was more than a year before all the downstairs rooms were painted; over
six years before the two big upstairs "dormitories" were completed.
During a three weeks' vacation last year, without any outside help, we
built the shell of a 20 by 26 foot addition to be used as a garage in the
winter and a porch in the summer. We have added touches ever since and,
while it is serviceable now, it will be another two years before we have
the house completed the way we want it. Then will be the time to expand in
It may seem intolerable to live in a house which is not completed or
which is always being improved. That would be true if the house were not
your own, or if you wanted it to be a show place to impress outsiders.
Many of our visitors have arched an eyebrow as they looked at the
unfinished condition of our house, and I suppose some were scandalized.
But if you are always planning, you don't see things as they are but as
they are going to be--and that is good.
We Americans have an over-developed fastidiousness. We want to see
every pin in place and everything done and finished. Nature does not work
that way nor does man at his best. The medieval cathedrals took centuries
to build, but the world is far richer for them than if bishops had ordered
workers to put up the best structure they could finish in ninety days.
The assumption that one cannot have a new house unless it is finished
to the last splendid detail is a major factor in preventing construction,
for it increases the cost tremendously. Over the years we have worked an
average of more than an hour a day on the house. Estimated at. a dollar an
hour (which would be optimistic for our unskilled labor) our work has
added $2,500 in value to the house.
Work of this kind does not take any special skill. A century and a
half ago every pioneer was able to plan and make nearly everything he
needed. There is no evidence that our average intelligence has decreased.
Any man who can shave should have a hand steady enough to saw. Anyone who
can swing a golf club can swing a hammer.
There are municipal regulations which require licensed workers to
perform certain jobs in construction work. Yet there remain hundreds of
things which a man can do for himself, and it is in these jobs that the
greatest savings can be made. Perhaps it is a double saving, for one who
is engrossed in building his own house is a very poor patron of taverns,
movies, and costly forms of outside entertainment!
Almost anyone who wants to work on his own house will have to rely
upon others. Books and government publications can help you over many
rough spots, but the best source is the advice of people in your community
who retain knowledge of ancient skills. Such people are generous. They are
proud of their art and eager to aid anyone who wants to learn.
4. A home should provide privacy.
The first step toward privacy for the family is to make the house a
single-family unit. Over 99 per cent of the families in Manhattan borough
live in multiple-family units; the percentage does not fall much below 33
in any city.
Pressure for space accounts for some of this crowding of families into
areas where they can have only a superficial privacy--at the expense of
remaining anonymous. In cities even single-unit dwellings are often jammed
together like slices of bakery bread. Since the decentralization of family
units depends upon the decentralization of cities and industry, there is
no prospect of an immediate solution to the problem.
Yet privacy remains the ideal. The family home should be secluded
enough that members of the family may work, eat, talk, and even quarrel
without a dozen other families watching and listening. Rearing normal
children is almost impossible if every sound, from baby's cries to Sonny's
laughter, must be hushed to prevent neighbors from becoming
A family planning a home should put privacy high on the list. Securing
land in a remote suburb or on the fringes of the town or city will mean
sacrificing some conveniences, but you should weigh these disadvantages
against the gain in family privacy before making a decision. Fortunately
for those who want "space, light, and air" for the family, as Pope Pius
XII termed it, big lots in undeveloped areas are far less expensive than
small lots in crowded areas. Our house was built in its entirety for less
than the estimated cost of two rooms in a Harlem slum-clearance housing
5. A home should be part of a community.
The family needs privacy; that is primary. A family also needs
neighbors. A community is a collection of families united by a common bond
and acting together for similar goals. Geographic proximity is a stimulus
to community spirit but it is not sufficient stimulus by itself. Families
may live close to one another and yet be strangers or, worse, they may be
People with community spirit know and are interested in one another.
They visit. They work together on projects for church, school, safety, and
recreation. They cooperate to beautify the community. They exchange help
and tools. Their children play and fight together. They have a mutual
sense of security in belonging to a loyal group.
Little more thought is given to community than to privacy in buying or
building a house today. At best it is a negative concern, verging on
snobbery and racism. We pick a location, not because of what it has but
because it is guaranteed not to have people in an inferior income bracket
or of a different race. Community spirit cannot arise without more vital
bonds than similarity of income and color.
The conventional city block style is directly opposed to family
privacy and community unity. Each house is a public display, aimed to
impress an impersonal audience at the expense of the family. Much of the
valuable small lot is used for a front lawn where privacy is impossible.
Children must keep off the grass that strangers may be edified by a prim
and sterile landscape. The rear of the home is at most uninteresting,
facing a dirty alley.
Somewhere along the line we Americans lost a valuable principle
guiding our European ancestors. They valued privacy; it was common
practice for them to build their houses on the edge of the street, with
all the services coming from the street, not from the alley. What we call
the front of the house, they have at the rear in the form of a little
court where they and their neighbors can enjoy seclusion.
Ideally, families ought to plan their homes to fit into a community
that already exists or they should join several families with like
interests in planning a block of houses.
Groups of families building in new districts could achieve community
unity by facing their houses inward instead of toward the street and by
replacing alleys with a common. Integrated (but not identical)
architecture would increase the beauty of the surroundings. Buying and
building together, they could save considerably in construction costs. And
all that is involved in planning together would develop mutual
understanding so that community spirit would be well under way.
In such projects individuality is not lost. Uniformity on all points
is not desirable. A common desire to build a Christian community where the
importance of rearing children is understood would be a sound basis for
There are obstacles to working together and temptations to
individualism. We fancied a pine-covered acreage overlooking a lake. It
was alluring--but alone. No neighbors in sight. We have been grateful a
thousand times for the advice not to isolate ourselves. We fitted our home
into a small community of seven families, with each house about three to
five hundred feet from the other. We vary in nationality, occupation, age,
and size of family. No one interferes with anyone else, yet everyone is
aware of and interested in the welfare of the other.
A community at its best should probably be larger than ours is, but,
regardless of size, it is the spirit of unity and mutual willingness to
help that counts. A family that builds a house without knowledge of or
concern for neighbors is creating an obstacle to the making of a home.
6. A home should be a productive unit.
From many standpoints, no consideration in home making is more
important than planning the home as a productive enterprise--productive
for the wife, the husband, and the children. This is a principle to which
Pope Pius XII has referred again and again. He says that no form of
private property (no, not even automobiles and television sets) "is more
conformable to nature . . . than the land, the holding in which the family
lives, and from the products of which it draws all or part of its
To have a productive unit you do not have to buy a farm, even to have
ten acres and a cow, as we do, or one acre and two goats, as a friend has.
A 150-foot square lot can be very productive if properly planned.
The concept of productiveness begins within the family itself. In
planning the house, the features which will help the wife work more
efficiently are much more important than the appearance of the house to
outsiders. No matter how pretty certain arrangements and furnishings might
be, if they mean that the wife's cleaning load will be doubled or that she
will have to take ten extra steps fifty times a day, that plan is faulty.
The centers of traffic, the proximity of conveniences, the number and
location of closets, and many other items should be planned to facilitate
Productiveness of the rest of the homestead depends upon the location
and climate and amount of space. Some men may prefer to concentrate on
fine work, making furniture and cabinets, so they should have a shop.
Trees and shrubs can be fruit producing and not merely ornamental. Even in
cities there is opportunity to raise bees, rabbits, and a garden.
What a family can produce will vary. Within each family it will vary
from year to year, depending on the age, experience, and free time of the
parents and children. The important thing is to plan the house and its
location so that productive work is possible.
The most obvious arguments for a productive home are economic, since
less than 10 per cent of American families have a big enough income to
relieve them of worry about saving money. There are grounds for suspecting
the person who always says, "It's cheaper to buy it than to make it."
That's true of automobiles and washing machines. That's not true of
cooking, sewing, gardening, and other household services; statistics from
every state department of agriculture and home economics prove that.
But the person who is producing must know how to do the work and he
must not buy expensive equipment for minor tasks. A 50 by 50 foot garden
will not justify a garden tractor; a canning pressure cooker is
inefficient if all it processes in a year is seven quarts of beans.
Another consideration is that usually a family has less and of a
poorer quality when it buys than when it produces for itself. When our cow
is dry, our butter and milk consumption is cut by half, since it is too
expensive to use as much.
Even if the productive home were not a noticeable saving, it still
would be needed. This necessity follows from the very nature of man, for,
as Scripture tells us, "Man was born to labor and the bird to fly." Work
is necessary to development as a human person. The home is the first and
most important society in which the child matures. When children are
deprived of the opportunity to do constructive work, their personalities
suffer. We should not be surprised if they become troublesome,
irresponsible, and delinquent.
The purpose of play and recreation is to enable us to work and pray
better--it "re-creates" us for higher things. Yet in homes where there is
no wholesome work for the children, they can only play. Children, being
children, may grumble at tasks to be performed, but usually it is because
we have not taken time to train them or we have not given them really
responsible work to do.
Anyone who has watched 4-H club youth with their livestock or garden
or kitchen projects has learned that the greatest values of a productive
home are not economic.
This is not to disparage the use of the home as the principal place
for recreation. A house planned for family living, as mentioned earlier,
is necessarily planned for family play. This is rather to point out that
while we give considerable thought to facilities for recreation in
planning modern homes, we rarely provide opportunities for work. And work
is actually more important for children than play.
7. A home should be beautiful.
Beauty is one of the prime properties of being. Everyone wants to
achieve beauty in his home. It is hard to imagine anyone sitting down and
saying, "Now let's plan a really unbeautiful house." At the same time,
beauty does not "look after herself." Beauty is achieved only after
thought and experiment. Beauty takes patience and, sometimes, more money.
There is a temptation to draw the line at the useful and to let it go
at that. Or one may hold doggedly to a plan which in theory should satisfy
beauty but which is "out of place" in a particular location. Or one may
spend too much on some one item, like putting rubies and diamonds on a mop
pail. There are many ways of offending beauty. Giving thought to the
principle will help to avoid them.
Beauty is the most elusive of the principles of house planning. It is
hard to get agreement on what beauty is, beyond the general statement of
the philosophers that "The beautiful is that which, when seen, pleases."
Beauty is related to harmony and order, though violent contrasts like
churning black clouds and jagged lightning are beautiful. Beauty
presupposes the good and the true; we can be guided by the knowledge that
the bad and the false in themselves cannot be beautiful. False fronts and
imitations which do violence to the materials from which they are made
will soon reveal their ugliness and mar a house and its furnishings.
Nor should one plan conventional things just because they are
conventional. It is probably impossible to please all outsiders anyway;
public taste is fickle and changing. The test should be--is it pleasing to
you and to your family? Not, what will other people think?
There is no blueprint for beauty and examples are not very useful.
Beauty has to be "seen." In building, the "seeing" is first in the
imagination. No time is wasted, when you shut your eyes and try to see how
this shape and these lines will look against this terrain in this
community, how these colors will blend, how this furniture will look in
In our own experience, we believe we have failed in this principle
more than in any of the others, largely because I was in too much of a
hurry to get a job done. I am afraid that most of us men are too
utilitarian and unconcerned with beauty, especially when it takes more
time and costs more to do a job well. Wives are almost always better
judges of home beauty. If they persevere with patience and tact, the home
should become more and more beautiful
+ + +
These seven principles, we believe, have given us the best standard
for making a home. We are more convinced than ever that if we had to start
over again we would try to follow the same policy. We believe that it has
given us an ideal setting for trying to build a Christian family. If we
fail in this environment, we cannot blame anyone but ourselves.
It would be misleading to say that a house can be planned and built
easily. Discouragement and obstacles and fatigue are going to win a day
now and then. But the continuous process of building a home is an
adventure in living, joyous and rich. It should not be approached as a
worry and a headache. It should and can be a refreshing experience,
calling for creative thought by the intellect, important decisions by the
will, and deep personal, human satisfaction in making something for
oneself, by oneself.
LINES FOR A GUESTROOM WALL
by Florence Hynes Willette
Here be at home; this room is yours what time You choose to make
it so. The walls reach strong, The floor and roof hold staunch
as oak can be-- This room will house your weeping or your song.
One fond of firelight devised the hearth, Drew chairs and books
and fagots to its side; One planned this room who loves to look
at sky, And so the windows open full and wide.
The leaning trees have havened untold wings, Barred ardent sun
and ushered in the wind; When bared by frost their shadows write
an ode-- One planted them with thoughts like these in mind.
Be peaceful here. The bed's wide gentle arms Will cradle you
with certainty and ease; And patiently, this small bright
braided rug Awaits the humble pressure of your knees.