- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Steerforth; First Edition edition (February 7, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 158642100X
- ISBN-13: 978-1586421007
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,890,173 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Witness of St. Ansgar's Hardcover – February 7, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Nielsen, who died 15 years ago and published his other works under a pseudonym, offers this fictionalized account of his adolescent years in a Bavarian Catholic parish in Manhattan in the 1930s. Though the subtitle calls it a novel, it is largely a series of vignettes that do not connect to any overarching plot. They all have the same setting—either St. Ansgar's church or Stanley Street, home to tenements full of Irish, Italian and German families. The witness of the title is Mario, a German-American teenager who is assistant to Friar Benigno, sacristan of St. Ansgar's and one of the many Franciscan brothers who minister to the parish. Told from Mario's perspective, the stories are poignant and personal—a secret history. While they do include a number of clichés and stereotypes (the pedophilic priest, the ennobled working-class immigrant), they paint an affectionate, textured portrait of imperfect friars and troubled parishioners. Some of the vignettes are heartbreakingly beautiful, particularly one that features Lizzie Talbot, a notoriously lazy housewife whose close friendship with a handsome young friar betters her as a person, but ultimately leads to tragedy. Central to each story is the abiding friendship between Mario and Benigno, both of whom evolve into endearing characters by the end of the book. (Feb.)
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"The Witness of St. Ansgar's is a heart-warming gem. . . . Nielsen supplies a colorful grab bag of characters and plots involving rebellious daughters, authoritarian fathers, local gangsters, Tammany Hall henchmen, cops on the take, neighborhood lovelies . . . There's writing to savor . . . And Nielsen effectively conveys the temptations faced by those -- young men, in many instances -- who enter holy orders, not just from rich widows and lonely housewives, but from self-doubt, guilt complexes, pride, and, in one case, predatory homosexuality. . . . As Friar Benigno says: 'By jingo neddies, the church knows about people.' So does Francis Nielsen. The Witness of St. Ansgar's is definitely one for the shelves."
— The Hamilton Spectator
''The Witness of St. Ansgar's is a strangely old-fashioned little book. . . . Set chiefly during the Depression, the stories are told from the point of view of a boy, Mario, who, at around the age of 6 or 7 becomes the assistant to the church's sacristan, an old Franciscan friar, Benigno. The old man is a rough saint whose greatest failing is his temper, though he has pretty well mastered it. He jealously watches over his little world, the church, performs his duties scrupulously, and is a fount of humble observation on the ways of men and women in this vale of tears."
— The Boston Globe
"The life of a Manhattan Catholic parish throughout the 1930s and after is lovingly etched in this posthumously published semi-autobiographical novel. . . . A lovely book . . . Arguably, in fact, a minor classic. "
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Told from Mario's perspective, the stories are poignant and personal - a secret history. . . . They paint an affectionate, textured portrait of imperfect friars and troubled parishioners. Some of the vignettes are heartbreakingly beautiful. . . . Central to each story is the abiding friendship between Mario and Benigno, both of whom evolve into endearing characters by the end of the book."
— Publishers Weekly
"When I finished this book I wanted to read it all over again. It's that kind of work. . . . The power of these stories lies in the tutorial brilliance of a simple friar who mentors a boy he comes to love as the son he can never have. We connect viscerally because Benigno is the kind of guide we ourselves would like to have. . . . By the time I turned the last page of the book, I felt that I had experienced my own minor miracle."
— Edward L. Beck in The Christian Century Magazine
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Nielsen pits his 15 year old hero against the incredibly aged Brother Benigno, who is so old that he can remember the day that Abe Lincoln's funeral train passed through the town. Mario loves Benigno as a substitute grandfather figure, and teaches him all sorts of lessons about the peculiar ways of grace, and also, poverty, chastity and obedience. In one disquieting episode he takes off Mario's shoe and sock and puts a pebble in them, making Mario get up and try to hobble around the excruciating pebble pain, all in the service to trying to make his boy understand how a guilty conscience is like having a pebble in your soul.
If any of you know the famous IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE by Rumer Godden, or have seen Otto Preminger's film of THE CARDINAL, some of the interlocked vignettes of ST. ANSGAR's will be familiar to you. Yes, it's an old fashioned book, that might have easily been written in the 1930s, but chalk that up to the late Francis Nielsen's extremely close rendering of his adorable teenage altar boy, and the way he sticks close to what Mario is feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling, not to mention thinking, for although no Einstein, Mario doesn't get fooled for very long. A brief afterword by Florence, the widow of Francis, reveals that Nielsen wrote this book in the very last years of life, and that for 15 years his family failed to find a publisher. It is, after all, a decidedly old fashioned subject--spiritual growth--and commercial publishers probably couldn't figure out a way to sell the movie rights. Although I hope a movie is made of this, and for Brother Benigno, the towering, profane, saintly curmudgeon who dominates Mario's soul, I would ask Kirk Douglas for a last hurrah, or maybe Richard Widmark.