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The Witness of St. Ansgar's
By Francis W. Nielsen
Copyright © 2006
Estate of Francis W. Nielsen
All right reserved.
Joseph Zoller, rechristened Friar Benigno, was honored on the
sixtieth anniversary of his admission into the order.
The high altar was an island of flowers, candles, and opulent
hangings. The side aisles were draped with strands of colored lights,
the center aisle canopied with banners, and all the walls and arches
festooned with swags of bunting. It was high pageantry. The interior
of St. Ansgar's shimmered, enchanted by the full blaze of lights.
The sanctuary was packed with visiting clergy and religious
in their distinctive garb: Dominicans, Benedictines, Passionists,
Carmelites, Jesuits, Franciscans, Paulists, Augustinians, and one
lone boy in plain cassock and white surplice.
Three priests in golden vestments stood at the high altar, swinging censers
in short arcs, puffs of the sweet-smelling incense rising; from overhead
the tremendous peal of five great bells rang in staggered harmony.
Not a seat to be had, every pew was packed, the congregation
moving as one, standing, sitting, kneeling, one great unified mass.
All those voices, the swell of the organ, combining into a hymn of
Mario's senses reeled, he was made drunk by the ritual, the panoply,
Who was Joseph Zoller who came to be called Friar Benigno? In
time Mario would be expected to say, to bear witness, but not then,
Friar Nicodemus, that most illustrious among the friars, a Roman
scholar, an august preacher, was in the pulpit, extolling Benigno's virtues,
his years of service. Every Dutchie in the congregation agreed
with the words of praise uttered by the roly-poly preacher. He was
"their" Benigno, theirs! Baumer the baker, Moltke the butcher,
Samuessen the undertaker, Wolfram the organist, Hans the sexton,
Mario the boy, everybody on that banner day knew Benigno.
Mario watched him in the midst of his crowded sanctuary. He
was seated on a wooden folding chair. Benigno refused to sit on one
of the plush, red-velvet-cushioned side chairs used for such solemn
occasions. He was dressed in his habit and he wore his skullcap to
protect his bald head from the draft which swept across the sanctuary.
His stubby beard rested against his tunic, his face was grave,
his strong, thickset body appeared tense. He was putting up with
this fuss. It was not his idea, but the order insisted upon making it a
jubilee. Mario knew he was squirming.
And yet it was appropriate. All the pomp and ceremony, honoring
Benigno, because in a very real sense Benigno was the embodiment
of St. Ansgar's. Some of the more argumentative Dutchie parishioners
would have it that Benigno was St. Ansgar's church.
It was this kind of braying, ignorant talk which would get Benigno's
"Ah, they're noodleheads. You never know what they got in their
heads. Such nonsense! When you hear them say such things, Mario,
you close your ears."
"But you did see them building the church, Brother."
"Oh, ja. I see them put it up. But lots of the people at that time
see it, too. In them days there are no buildings around where the
church is being put up. It is a field. They have goats eating the grass.
There is a spring where the people come with their jugs to get the
"They cart in the blocks of stone in long, flat wagons, sometimes
three teams of horses pull the loads on account of they is so heavy.
The blocks is all marked. The masons with their hammers, how they
ring when they hit the stones, they are like fliers they are so high up
in scaffolding. Ja, I see them build St. Ansgar's."
One time Benigno took Mario outside, to the east wall of the church,
to show him the buttresses. You couldn't see them from the street
anymore because a large commercial building had been shoehorned
in next to the church on that side.
"Everything have a beginning, Mario. You, and though I am so
old you don't maybe believe it, I have a beginning once, too, so naturally
St. Ansgar's have a beginning. Everything, everything, except
Benigno was born halfway along the block from the church, he
could look from a hallway window and watch the walls of the church
rise course after course. He could hear those echoing hammer blows,
the shouts of the workmen, the hiss of the steam derricks swinging
up the stones.
"But the church it was not built by the order. Oh, no, not on your
tintype. It ain't built for Dutchies. We ain't got the money. Nah. It
was built for the rich people, ja. Rich people live on Stanley Street in
them days. You see, them rich people they never think one day the
Dutchies is going to come off the boats and settle here. But by the time
the church is up, it's a different story ... the Dutchies have come!
"The rich people is all upset to see so many Dutchies getting
dumped on the West Side. They don't want to be with them greenhorns.
They don't want their kids playing with us who can't speak
no English. They don't want their daughters and sisters to get married
to Dutchie men. Ach, I tell you, it was a fix they was in. Here
they have this beautiful new church, just finish, so new the paint still
smell, and the Dutchies take it over. Ja, the Dutchies see a church,
they come to it. But the rich people they skedaddle. They move out
of the neighborhood, move uptown where it is ritzy and no Dutchie
have come. Ja, after they have flown the coop, it get to be a very
ticklish sitooation. What they going to do with this new church?
The Dutchies can't pay for it, they is too poor. So what happen, the
bishop of the diocese transfer the church to the order, a bunch of
Bavarian friars. It be rededicated to St. Ansgar, and that be how it all
start. And if it had not happen that way, well, maybe I never become
a friar. Maybe I grow up to follow my father's trade which was cigar
"My mother and father have come from Passau, just like your
grandmother and grandfather. How come they settle here? This is
where the boat stops and unloads! And after the first boatload, then
the rest follows. They stick together like in the Old Country. Today
it is hard to believe how bad it was back then. Ja, tough days. That
was the time after the Civil War. There was riots, people hating one
another, food was something to get ... daily bread. I remember my
mother and father worrying about how they feed us. My uncle Emil
who live with us, he come on some rotten potatoes which he bring
home. By jingo neddies, you think he have found gold."
Mario would listen to these memories spellbound. Benigno was
talking of days which somehow only seemed out of a history book.
Those events actually had happened! Mario was astonished.
"Ja, one time, and I never forget this. My mother and father, my
uncle Emil, and my sisters, we get all dressed up on a weekday,
because there's no work that partickler day. I was very young, very. I
am on Uncle Emil's shoulders. We go to Tenth Avenue. At that time
there is a railroad station down there. The trains come in to there
from all over the country. They change the steam engines there. This
day I talk about, we find the place filled with the people. They stand
on the platform, on the street, on the tracks. And they are so quiet,
so quiet, Mario. They got their hats off, and many of the people have
tears running down their face, but they are so quiet. I whisper into
Uncle Emil's ear what is wrong. Why are the people the way they
are. I never forget what he say ... never.
"The President Lincoln's body is in that train!
"Ja, his body was being taken home. I see the casket in the railroad
car, a flag is over it, the people lining the tracks. I never forget that
sight. It is so awful quiet, just the steam engine it pant ... Ja, it pant
like it been running hard ... ja ... ja ..."
Mario's eyes filled with tears, so moved was he by the description
of the funeral train.
"I remember when your grandmother and grandfather comes to
this country. I remember your father and mother getting married. I
put the chrysanthemums on the altar for their marriage ceremony.
Ja, I have even talk to your mother the day she come to be blessed
because she is carrying you ... ja. I tell you something else. You have
cried all through your christening. Ja, all the way through, like you
don't approve of it."
Mario asked how it was Benigno had become a friar.
"I am not the best kid in the world, I tell you. I have an awful, terrible
temper! And I do a lot of fighting with the fists. I get into very
much trouble. My father is pretty much disgusted with me. And
I don't go to church. I smoke. And I curse. One day, after I have
been up to my old tricks, my father grab me and shake me up. He is
boiling mad. He drag me upstairs, make me take a bath, make me
put on my suit, and he strong-arm me to St. Ansgar's. I don't have
no idea what he's up to.
"Well, anyways, it happens that a mission is being given by a very
famous preacher, Friar Polycarp. He could have been a Dominican
he is such a talker. The mission is being given for wife beaters,
drunks, crooks, and as my father says to me: 'For good-for-nothing
kids like you, Joseph Zoller!'"
Benigno smiled: "I wasn't very old at the time and I'm the only
young one with all of them older people in the pews and I think they
all looking at me. I tell you, when that Friar Polycarp look down
from the pulpit, he seem to be right on top of you, he is one big fella.
I get the feeling those black eyes of his is seeing right down inside of
me. I tell you, Mario, he scare the lights out of me. He have a great
big black beard, and his eyebrows is like brushes, and his voice is like
thunder. Whew, he is something.
"He start in on St. Francis. Telling how wild he was when he
was a kid, run around a lot, raise Cain. He was a kind of a good-for-nothing
kid, rich too. God fill him with the idea of being the
poorest of the poor, the servant of the minores, the poor little folk.
St. Francis takes off his rich clothes, he gives them away to the poor,
he goes to the lepers and tend them. I remember how Friar Polycarp
draw himself up, he is tremendous, and he cry: 'St. Francis he don't
move uptown like the rich people. He don't beat the women. He
don't drink until he is drunk like a pig. He don't rob and steal and
"I tell you, Mario, inside I am shaking like a leaf, that fella he have
a hand around my heart ...
"Anyways, he goes on, and tells how St. Francis dressed in rags
goes before Pope Innocent to get him to okay an order set up to serve
the minores. The pope have a dream the walls of the Lateran palace
is crumbling and that a beggar man comes along and holds up the
wall. And lo and behold, by jingo neddies, along comes St. Francis
in rags, just like the beggar in the dream the pope have. So the pope
tells him to go ahead and start the order."
Benigno paused, took off his glasses, and said thoughtfully: "Ah,
Mario, it have one beck of a wallop for me what this friar is saying.
I don't know what it is that is happening then. It just strike me that
this St. Francis is some fella, wonderful. He have found the worm
in his path. He bend down and pick him up and move him out of
the way so he not be trampled on. I feel this something inside of me,
something I never have felt before, it fill me, Mario. It fill me with a
wanting ... ja, a wanting.
"My mother and father, they don't believe me, when I say I am
going to become a friar. But I go and see Friar Polycarp. He make
the arrangements. When I first start I think I become a priest but
I got not the head for study, but I do have good hands, and I love
the flowers, so I decide to become a brother. St. Francis, you know,
never become a priest. He always remain a brother. I enter the order
in 1872." Benigno put on his glasses, looked at Mario, and said with
a straight face: "It have almost cured me of my bad temper ...
"You never wanted to leave, huh, Brother?"
"Well, I wouldn't say that ... no, I wouldn't. When I first get out
there at the motherhouse, we is in the wilds. There's no houses for
miles, no streetlights, no nothing, just the wind. They give me a pair
of sandals which is made like boards, and they put a scythe in my
hand. I never have use one before. And then we cut oats, miles and
miles of oats, with a hot, itchy woolen habit on. Ach, I'm in agony,
my hands is all blistered, my feet rubbed raw, my body, every muscle
sending me telegrams, and then they get me up at two o'clock in the
morning ... ja, they get me up from sleeping on a plank. It was no
bed of roses to be a friar. I learn that. And nobody but the masters
talks. And I get so lonely. I tell you it get so bad, I start talking to the
birds ... ja, I talk to the birds, to the pigs, to the horses ... ja, my
temper, it get pretty good and flatten out. I even run away once I am
so unhappy ...
"But a most peculiar thing, I am more unhappy away ... this
wanting I feel make me go back." Benigno paused, glanced at Mario,
and murmured: "I still have the wanting. To this day. Ja, so after a
while I learn to accept and live according to the Rule. The plank I
sleep on at night grows softer, my sandals break in, the habit don't
itch me no more, and my beard grow, and I make my solemn profession,
I get my cowl, and I am a one hundred percent member of the
Order Minores, a friar. And you know what happen after all of this?
They ship me right back to where I come from, to Stanley Street, to
St. Ansgar's where I am assigned as sacristan, can you imagine?"
Benigno laughed. "Ja, they could have sent me to a dozen other
places in the country but right back here I come. And I tell you, I
know it was going to happen. St. Ansgar's is never out of my mind.
You should see what happen when I come back. My mother and
father, my uncle Emil, they keep their distance, they can't believe
that the fella with the beard and brown habit is their boy Joseph
Zoller, that good-for-nothing, that one with the terrible temper. Oh,
ja, ja, it's a funny thing how things happen, Mario.
"Look, I show you something ..." Benigno searched inside his
tunic pocket. He brought out a set of wooden rosary beads with a
flat wooden crucifix. They looked worn from regular telling. "You
see, the Dutchies have these made for me in Passau. They give them
to me when I am here ten years. They make up their mind slowly, it
take them ten years to accept me as sacristan. Look at it."
Mario took the rosary beads and examined them. The wood felt
soft to his touch.
"Look at the back of the cross, Mario."
Mario read: "Joseph Zoller, Passau."
Mario returned the rosary.
"Ja, they all gone now. My family, so many of the old-timers. All
gone ... but you are here, Mario. You. And one day, I give you my
The jubilee service continued. Friar Nicodemus in his Bavarian-inflected
English was detailing Friar Benigno's years of service, his
enrichment of St. Ansgar's ...
Mario's thoughts drifted away. Somehow it seemed appointed that
he should become Brother Benigno's helper. He pestered and pestered
his mother to become an altar boy. She took him to see Brother
Benigno. Mario could tell from her tone when talking to Benigno
she was proud of her son, and making an offering of him. She'd lost
all of her other children, Mario was all she had.
Benigno taught him his Latin, rehearsed him in the service ritual,
and after a while Mario found himself running every day to St.
Ansgar's. It was not to pray, to meditate, it was to be there, be there
near Benigno ... yes, to be there, a need, to catch the light, the colors
of the stained-glass panels, the airy shafts slanting from the clerestory,
and the great hush walling out the noise of the throbbing city.
Yes, Mario ran to be there.
And one day Brother Benigno came to him as Mario knelt at the
communion rail. Benigno looked into the boy's large, brown eyes. He
said: "Come, Mario. I need a helper. You will be my helper. Ja, my
helper." He touched Mario's head with his hand. "You wait for me."
Benigno changed into his civvies, a square black jacket coat, baggy
black pants, and soft leather shoes. Together they marched down
Stanley Street to where Mario lived.
Mario's father was at the sink in his undershirt, washing away the
day's grime from his arms and elbows, the supper was cooking on
the gas stove, the gas chandelier was lighted, the shadow of the fixture
cast on the ceiling.
"Mario, where've you been? You're so late. Ah, Brother Benigno,
"Ah, Lena, I come to explain. It be my fault Mario is late. I have
keep him back. I want him for my helper."
"Get a chair, Mario. Have a glass of wine, Brother."
Mario's father dried himself, peeling away with his fingers one
stubborn fleck of paint. He was a scene painter.
"I tell you why I come. I want you to tell me it's okay if Mario
come and be my helper, after school and on Saturdays. I pay him."
Mario watched his mother's face light up. Already she had him
fully robed, his chasuble hanging stiffly on his frame, bending over
his mother, giving her his first priestly blessing. But his father, who
was less visionary, turned to his son and asked: "What about it,
Excerpted from The Witness of St. Ansgar's
by Francis W. Nielsen
Copyright © 2006 by Estate of Francis W. Nielsen.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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