Nielsen, Francis W. 1920-1990

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Nielsen, Francis W. 1920-1990


Born 1920, in New York, NY; died 1990; married; wife's name Florence; children: three sons.


Writer. Worked at various occupations, including actor, farmer, head of production for CBS-TV in New York, counselor, and audio producer.


The Witness of St. Ansgar's (novel), Steerforth Press (Hanover, NH), 2006.


Francis W. Nielsen had several careers that enabled him to support his wife and children. His primary interest, however, was writing. He wrote poetry, plays, short stories, and novels, two of which were published under a pseudonym in the 1970s. These books, published by Columbia University Press, were fictional portraits of inmates and drug abusers he had worked with during his time as a prisoner and youth counselor. His career included developing an audio therapy system, working on a farm, and as the production head at the studio that produced the old television variety program The Ed Sullivan Show.

Nielsen died in 1990, but he left behind an unpublished semi-autobiographical novel titled The Witness of St. Ansgar's. Completed in 1985, the novel did not interest publishers before Nielsen's death or after it either. Nielsen's wife and children, however, planned to publish the novel privately. Before they incurred the expense of self-publishing, one of Nielsen's sons, Erik, decided to try to interest a publisher one more time and garnered a response from Steerforth Press. "I called them," Erik Nielsen told a contributor for an article on the Seven Days Web site, "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."

Since its publication in 2006, the novel has received numerous favorable reviews, with a Kirkus Reviews contributor calling it "arguably, in fact, a minor classic." Neil Coughlan, writing in Commonweal, commented: "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."

The novel focuses on a Catholic parish in lower Manhattan called Saint Ansgar. Beginning in the Depression-era 1930s, The Witness of St. Ansgar's introduces readers to teenage Mario and Friar Benigno, an elderly Franciscan Brother who becomes Mario's friend and mentor. Through these two characters, readers are given a view of the brothers of a Bavarian Franciscan parish and the people in the surrounding community. "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," wrote Coughlan in Commonweal.

Among the stories told is that of Bertha Hassler, a woman who loses four husbands in two decades and Paddy Hilliard, who has curried the favor of the politically corrupt Tammany Hall bosses of New York City until his derby is found floating in the Hudson River. Later, some neighborhood boys think they see his ghost. Another character is a new Friar who arrives at Saint Ansgar and spends most of his day in a prayerful pose that is exactly the same as the pose of St. Francis depicted by a church statue. Still another tale features Lizzie Talbot, a housewife known for her lack of homemaking skills and who has a tragic friendship with a handsome friar.

Edward L. Beck, writing in the Christian Century, noted: "When I finished this book I wanted to read it all over again. It's that kind of work. For cinephiles, think Dead End meets Going My Way with a bit of Sleepers thrown in for realism and good measure. Films instead of books come to mind because The Witness of St. Ansgar's evokes strong visual images easily imagined on the big screen. And while the story might be a bit too folksy for today's Hollywood standards, the emotions that the book elicits linger long after the rolling of the credits." Other reviewers also had high praise for the novel, which many noted was closer to a series of interrelated vignettes. A Publish-ers Weekly contributor commented that the various stories about the parish's inhabitants "paint an affectionate, textured portrait of imperfect friars and troubled parishioners." Patrick O'Hannigan, writing on the Paragraph Farmer Web site, commented that the novel "ranks as a pleasant surprise and possibly a literary classic."



Christian Century, October 17, 2006, Edward L. Beck, "Neighborhood Saint," review of The Witness of St. Ansgar's, p. 58.

Commonweal, May 19, 2006, Neil Coughlan, "Manhattan Transfer," review of The Witness of St. Ansgar's, p. 22.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2005, review of The Witness of St. Ansgar's, p. 1104.

Publishers Weekly, December 12, 2005, review of The Witness of St. Ansgar's, p. 39.


Barnes & Noble, (February 22, 2008), brief profile of author.

Paragraph Farmer, (June 23, 2006), Patrick O'Hannigan, "Applause for The Witness of St Ansgar's."

Seven Days, (March 8, 2006), "Look Back in Ansgar's," review of The Witness of St. Ansgar's.

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Nielsen, Francis W. 1920-1990

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