The Back Story: Part 5 – Frank Obrigewitsch, SJ

Source: Kevin Burns

Back Story is a series about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a set of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing, and what they hope their work for igNation will accomplish. The interviews address their approach to writing in general rather than focus strictly on their work for this blog.

Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation.  What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation.

Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”

Today, it’s Frank Obrigewitsch, SJ. His two autobiographical series: The Journey: Letters Home, 1961-1963 and The Journey Continues: Letters Home from Philosophy Studies, 1965-1967, provide a fascinating insight into Jesuit formation during the radical transformations of Canada’s Catholic community in the early years of the Second Vatican Council. Kevin Burns phoned Frank Obrigewitsch, SJ at his parish office in Winnipeg where he is the pastor at St. Ignatius Parish.

Frank Obrigewitsch, SJ

KB: Let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?

FO: The first time I saw my words in print would have been in my high school, in the high school paper. It was rather nice to have someone read what I wrote. It was kind of thrilling to actually have someone read it say, “Well this is okay!”

It wasn’t a particularly broad publication as there were only six hundred students in that school. I heard that some of them actually read it! But it was there, and accepted by the editor.

KB: Where you nervous at all seeing your work made public in that way?

FO: Absolutely! It still causes me some nervousness to be putting myself out there, you know. I’m a pretty high introvert and so it’s a matter of being rather shy about revealing oneself to someone else. And that’s what you do when you write. You kind of reveal who you are and that causes a certain kind of nervousness.

Source: amazon.com

KB: About these two impressive series of yours for this blog, They offer a wonderful insight, not just into the Obrigewitsch family, but also into a time gone by. Do you recognize the young Jesuit that wrote them?        

FO: I was fearful when my mother gave those 130 letters after my dad died. As a matter of fact, after she gave them to me I put them on the shelf and they stayed on the shelf for at least ten years. I didn’t know what I would see when I re-read them. I didn’t know if I would meet myself when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22.

Then I decided that I’d better do something with them. I sorted them out chronologically to see what was there, and I was intrigued by what I saw and who I was back then. I see that there are some similarities, of course, many similarities to what I am today: a person who describes things quite concretely, which of course was my purpose when writing home.

My family certainly wouldn’t know where I was living, what I was doing. I tried to convey it all in writing and describe all that was happening to me. Re-reading them, I found my powers of description were pretty good and I think that’s still true today.

That’s how I still write. I do my homework. I like to take pictures so that whatever I write is accurate and that the description is clear, concise, and succinct. And of course, I also note a lot of growth, in there.

I should add that I was surprised by my energy and my industry and my attention to all those things that were going on. That period in Canadian church history was a change for the good that really helped my own spirituality and worship.

[To hear more about what his mother did with all of those letters, click here.

KB: Looking back, who would you say were the authors with the greatest influence on you?

FO: Well, let me think. It was the nursery rhymes and fairly tales in book 14 of The Book of Knowledge that my parents bought. Probably, that was the most influential book in all my life, you know. All those stories and all those nursery rhymes. I memorized them at a very young age.

Source: commons.wikipedia.org

I know it sounds silly as an influence, but when I think about it, it was probably the most influential ‘pack’ of literature in my whole life. Then, of course, there were the gospels, but we didn’t read them inasmuch as they were passed on in the traditional ways, in church and at home.

I should say, though, I took this university course in Canadian poetry. This was at the time when British poetry and American poetry were thought of as the best. I was introduced to people like Earl Burney and Raymond Souster. Their gravity, how in their poems they wrote about the concrete things all around them.

KB: You are also a poet. In addition to all the letters various reflection this blog has published some of your poetry. Tell me about how you go about writing a poem.

FO: Well, firstly I don’t know if it’s going to be a poem. I’m working on one piece and I don’t know what’s going to come of it. I’m doing my usual homework: taking photographs because they help me to think and to feel because I don’t always know, right away, if this is going to be a prose piece or a poem.

Source: porcupinesquill.com

It seems that when I sit down and get an idea as to how I am finally going to approach this, it’s at that time that a poem begins to write itself, or the prose piece begins to write itself. I put something down and I feel that it’s going in the right direction.

It’s kind of a mystery how it happens. The words just kind of fall into place, you know. Then you fiddle with it after. It’s tough to explain how all of this turns into a poem, but it just does.

KB: I’ve asked everyone in this series this next question. What’s on your bedside reading right now?

FO: Well, I’m reading – once again – the Cadfael Chronicles, those mysteries by Ellis Peters mysteries. This is also a year of re-reading. I’m re-reading the C.S. Lewis ‘space’ trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. And I’ve just started the Philip Shardlake mysteries by C. J. Sansom, set in the reign of Henry VIII. I like books set in another time and place.    

[To learn about the writing rituals of Frank Obrigewitsch, click here:

Kevin Burns is an Ottawa-based writer and editor. His most recent book is Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media, 2016) and distributed in Canada by Novalis.

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