Growing up Catholic: In the Geographical Center of North America
By Niomi Rohn Phillips
Self-published, Park Rapids, Minnesota, 2014, 105 pages, softcover.
This memoir spans three generations of a German-Russian family. It is a scrapbook of reminiscences from interviews, audiotapes, letters, and emails. The author relates stories from her great-aunt and from her grandmother, whose family emigrated from Russia in 1908. They recall the past, sometimes in disagreement, in tapes recorded in 1985. The author relates conversations with her mother, who grew up in the 1930’s, and resented women’s place in the German-Russian culture. “It was not the good old days,” she said. After her mother’s untimely death, the author pursued that sentiment in letters from her mother’s cousins, the first generation born in the United States.
The work weaves in and out of the past and the present with the author’s own story about growing up in a German-Russian Catholic community (1940s and 1950s) where her Mennonite dad was one of a handful of Protestants. After fifty years, she returns to Balta, discovers a childhood friend’s name in the church guest book, and then finds the friend and other contemporaries via the internet. Their recollections of the time and the place are conveyed via email and letters.
Finally, she reflects on her lifelong disdain for the Church and the Place. Returning in 2012, she learns a new respect for her German-Russian heritage and discovers the depth of her childhood church life.
The inclusion of previously published poetry and fiction adds dimension to the characters, the time, the place and the culture.
Poet Sharon Chmielarz said, I did not grow up Catholic, but I felt at home in your story.
Novelist Candace Simar of Brainerd, Minnesota wrote: "I feel like I have just returned from a visit to Balta. This is a vivid recollection in beautiful prose of a culture, time and place that will never again be the same."
The author’s cousin, Monsignor Joseph Senger commented: "Your book is a masterpiece. It gives an accurate account of German-Russian family life, in small towns and on the farm."
Don Schaan, a California artist who grew up in the Balta area emailed: "What a very good writer you are. The memory you have for details during that era is incredible. It is almost as if you were taking notes as a ten-year old girl . . . You got it right. Much of your book is compelling . . . the poem on Marriage was particularly honest."
About the author
Niomi Rohn Phillips grew up at Balta in Pierce County, north central North Dakota, largely settled by Germans from Russia families whose ancestors immigrated from the Catholic Black Sea German villages of the Kutschurgan District today near Odessa, Ukraine. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1961 and a Master’s Degree in 1980 from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. From 1984 to 2000, Niomi worked as Assistant Dean and Thesis Editor, UND Graduate School.
Niomi’s publications include Life on the Sheyenne (2008), poetry and writings in literary journals. She has received writing awards of Creative Expressions – Generations, Fargo Forum (2003) and from the Brainerd Writers Assocation.