The Witness of St. Ansgar’s
Francis W. Nielsen
Steerforth Press, $23.95, 240 pp.
Now and then a novel surfaces, seemingly from nowhere, telling a tale we didn’t even know we needed to hear. Such a rarity is The Witness of St. Ansgar’s. Information on its author is scant. Born in lower Manhattan in 1920, Francis Nielsen worked variously as an actor, a farmer, and head of production for CBS television, while writing two books of fiction “under a pseudonym in the 1970s,” his publisher cryptically informs us. He died in 1990.
Nielsen’s tenderly evocative book tells stories from a lost world, a Bavarian Franciscan parish in Manhattan’s lower West Side in the decade before World War II. The world of the parish is a crowded one; fifteen or so Franciscans reside at St. Ansgar’s on Stanley Street, and numerous are the “Dutchies” and their children and grandchildren making their living over at the freight yards and the Hudson River piers. Narrating events through the eyes of a neighborhood boy, Mario, Nielsen presents an urban village, with a village’s stories: foreshortened horizons, smothering social scrutiny, some desperate marriages and trapped youngsters. The surrounding metropolis seems strangely far away. Yet this isn’t Winesburg, Ohio. St. Ansgar’s snares its villagers in duty and surveillance, but it grants them the gift of intimacy-long and deep views of one another. For all that it helps condemn some of them to a very hard fate, it grants others grace.
And the stories! Bertha Hassler, who has lost four husbands in twenty years (“Died in childbirth,” remarks Kosh Stoltz) is now renting three rooms in her apartment to Paddy Hilliard. A bachelor in his fifties, Paddy is Tammany’s man in the neighborhood. When Friar Benigno, St. Ansgar’s sacristan, needs some extra cops for a big wedding or funeral, Paddy puts in a word at City Hall. And wasn’t it Paddy who got the wealthy and generous Mrs. Keating, a former Follies girl, to leave St. Patrick’s up on Fifth Avenue and attend Mass at St. Ansgar’s instead? He is a lion among Stanley Streeters. But one day tragedy strikes, announced by Paddy’s derby found bobbing in the river. His body is never recovered, but good Mrs. Keating hires a hearse and coaches and the empty catafalque is laid to rest in style. We are reminded that some neighborhoods in New York City are as remote from one another as are the geographical hemispheres, when many months later the seven-year-old Fanowitz twins claim to spot Paddy promenading up on Fifty-ninth Street (“We haff see der Geist!” they tell Mario. “He even got a derby!”). And every year on the tragic anniversary, Bertha Hassler comes to St. Ansgar’s to weep and pray-flowers come from Mrs. Keating.
Another story: A new friar, day after day in the church, rapt in prayer, always in the same peculiar posture-arms at his sides and back straight, head cocked slightly to one side, eyes closed, tears on his face. Mario suddenly realizes it is precisely the pose of the church’s statue of St. Francis, a statue marking the moment the great saint received the stigmata. The tale of the new friar hurtles to an ending that shows no fear of the reader.
Mario is the “witness” of the book’s title, but it is Friar Benigno-born Joseph Zoller, in 1860, to immigrant parents in the parish-who stands at the center, the protagonist in some of the stories and the interpreter to young Mario of most of the others. Exuding tough practicality and a considerable temper, Benigno is a portrait of Franciscan spirituality with the warts on, all faults and peculiarities attached. He reaches sometimes savage insights into people, but struggles to hold his tongue and not to judge, to remember that it is all about Christ and saving your soul. He distrusts “miracles” profoundly, but knows to shut up when one happens.
And miracles do occur in this book. Nielsen is completely comfortable in the big-city immigrant Catholic practices and faith of the first half of last century. Heroic virtue, real human evil, sacred vows, authority, holy obedience, devotions and obsessions, liturgical seasons, the primacy of the supernatural, they all are here. Nielsen doesn’t distance himself from the church as an institution or an environment. Indeed, as you wander around the parish with him, for a moment you forget any other place is possible.
The Witness of St. Ansgar’s has its faults: it’s less a novel, finally, than a series of stories, and a less than credible ending betrays either editorial intervention or an author who couldn’t find a way out of his book. Knowing that it wasn’t published during Nielsen’s lifetime adds a touch of sad mystery. Was the manuscript discovered in his papers? By whom, and in what form? And when was it written? In the late 1950s, when the world it describes had just flickered out? Or was the author able, twenty or even thirty years later, to send his imagination so impressively backward?