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Look Back in Ansgar's



Published March 8, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Plenty of people die and leave their heirs stocks and bonds, family heirlooms or cluttered houses, but rare are those who leave pure possibilities. Francis W. Nielsen left his wife, Florence Nielsen of Northfield, an unpublished novel.

Born in 1920, Nielsen had been many things in his life, says his son, non-pop composer Erik Nielsen of Brookfield. Francis Nielsen acted for 10 years; he designed sets at CBS and worked his way up to the job of production head at the New York studio that produced "The Ed Sullivan Show." He counseled youth and prison inmates, and practiced a form of audio-therapy he had developed himself. He worked on a farm. But "the common thread was his writing," says his son.

During Nielsen's lifetime, Columbia University Press published two "fictionalized composite portraits" that he had based on his work with inmates and drug abusers, using a pseudonym to protect confidentiality. But the work Nielsen considered his finest, a semi-autobiographical novel called The Witness of St. Ansgar's, which he completed in 1985, was still unpublished when he died in 1990. Florence Nielsen explains in an afterword that she "decided to have the novel published locally at [her] own expense."

The Witness became a three-generation project. Erik Nielsen edited the manuscript with his college-bound daughter Christina. Given that commercial publishers hadn't previously shown interest in the book, the Nielsens considered a form of self-publication through local author Stephen Morris' Public Press. But Erik Nielsen decided to try one last publisher - Steerforth Press in Hanover, which is "local and has a great reputation."

"I called them," he recalls, "and they said, 'We usually don't take unsolicited manuscripts, but send us a summary of the plot. A week later, they asked for the manuscript." After a few more weeks, publisher Chip Fleischer called, telling the family, "My final criterion [for publication] is whether I can maintain my enthusiasm when doing a standard stump speech. I certainly can with this book." The Witness has since received a warm reception, including a review in the Boston Globe. Kirkus Reviews called it "arguably . . . a minor classic."

At first glance, The Witness seems like a nostalgic portrait of a vanished world. Much of it takes place in the eponymous fictional Franciscan church, located in the "Dutchie" [from Deutsche, German immigrant] Stanley Street neighborhood of Manhattan's West Side. The time is the 1930s, and the book is a series of episodes, each chapter potentially a fully formed short story. The unifying thread is the relationship between Friar Benigno, the venerable, plainspoken sacristan, and Mario, the local boy who spends his youth as the friar's admiring protege. The recent scandals in the Catholic Church may tempt the modern reader to consider something suspect into this bond -- wrongly. Nielsen doesn't ignore the possibility of pedophilic priests; one chapter handles it with considerable tact. But he makes a case for the idea that a celibate friar in sandals can be an excellent mentor for a teenage boy.

It helps that Friar Benigno is no pale, cloistered idealist but someone fully engaged in life. Born in Passau, Bavaria, he speaks in a rough-hewn, vigorous English about his own vocation and about St. Francis, founder of his order, who "never deny, he never turn away. He not worry about what the law says." Like St. Francis, Benigno lives and works among poor parishioners whose sins are often the talk of the neighborhood -- drunks, wife beaters, cops on the take. Gruff and down to earth, he teaches Mario how to deal with all the "nuts" a church attracts: "the whirlers, the genuflectors, the holy water sprinklers, the statue strokers, the cross kissers, the communion rail clutchers." With no illusions about human nature, and considerable "broad-mindedness" when it comes to its variance and foibles, the friar still manages to exemplify steadfast faith in a higher, "eternal" standard of conduct.

He stands in stark contrast to the Dutchies of Stanley Street, whom Nielsen portrays as firmly convinced that "they were always right!" -- especially when something appears to prove them wrong. As The Witness moves out of the church to give us a broader view of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, it becomes clear that Nielsen's vision, nostalgic as it may be, is no Rockwellian "good old days." St. Ansgar's, with its rituals and rococco altar and elaborate Christmas crêche, means more when we view it in the context of a tenement neighborhood where an indoor toilet is a luxury, and a kid who finishes high school is hailed as an extraordinary scholar.

Death "roamed Stanley Street like a landlord," as Nielsen memorably puts it, and people who want to survive cling tight to their own. This is a place where each ethnic group -- Germans, Irish, Italians -- has its own Catholic church, and "intermarriage" among them is viewed as a scandal. To depart from the norm, like the baker's daughter who befriends an Indian exchange student and -- gasp! -- goes on a diet, is to invite ostracism. And the gift of critical thought that Benigno gives Mario is a gift indeed.

"In a lot of ways, he was Mario," Erik Nielsen says of his father. "He grew up in this ethnic enclave, Hell's Kitchen. He did serve as altar boy and assistant to a priest who was his mentor. A lot of the characters came out of him so easily because it was a world he really knew." Like Mario, Nielsen came from a family that was "not very artistically aware," so he "pretty much schooled himself in classical literature," says Erik Nielsen.

The book is reverent in its attitude toward Catholicism and the Franciscans. Yet it doesn't shirk from describing conflicts within the faith, as when Friar Guardianus alienates the entire congregation by hanging up a grotesque medieval Christ figure that's nailed through the wrists, rather than the palms. (Ironically, the erudite friar is trying to recreate the golden age of mass worship, the 12th century . . . and the 20th-century masses aren't buying it.)

Erik Nielsen emphasizes that one doesn't need to be Catholic to enjoy the book. "The greatest thing it has to give is love of humanity, with all the flaws and the warts," he says, pretty much describing Friar Benigno's approach to the world. In fact, Nielsen says, though he knows Mario embodies his father's youth, reading the book makes him remember the man at a later stage: "I think of Friar Benigno as my father.


It's a good month for bibliophiles. The Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association's 13th Annual Spring Book Fair will fill the South Burlington Sheraton's exhibition hall with quirky finds, old-time postcards and rare editions on Sunday, March 26, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kingdom Books, formerly of St. Johnsbury, is now offering new, used and rare poetry and mysteries in a spacious new home at 283 East Village Road, Waterford. Co-owner Beth Kanell has an exciting roster of author readings and events planned for the summer.

Meanwhile, folks with an interest in the burgeoning eco-field of sustainable design may want to check out Nancy Jack Todd reading from her co-written book, A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design, on the 15th at Barnes & Noble. Since 1969, Todd and her husband, UVM professor John Todd, have been experimenting with the potential of greenhouse mini-ecosystems to perform such functions as cleaning water and growing winter produce. Some of their more recent "eco-machines" have been installed at Sugarbush Ski Resort and in South Burlington.

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