Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Mystery fans, rejoice: Father Townsend, Father Dowling, Father Brown – and now, Father Wintermann
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 5, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Jack Frerker, a retired priest of the Belleville, Ill., diocese, now resides in Western Washington, where he writes mystery novels featuring a priest-sleuth. (IR file photo)
Father Jack Frerker, retired priest and current mystery novelist, hails from the Diocese of Belleville, in southern Illinois, but when he retired a few years ago, he decided that he preferred the climate of Olympia, Wash., to that of his home.
He was ordained for the Diocese of Belleville on June 1, 1963, just days before the death of Blessed Pope John XXIII.
Though most of his priesthood was spent in his home diocese, he also ministered in various capacities elsewhere, including two years in Chicago as executive director of the National Federation of Priests Councils. “I wasn’t the elected guy, but I ran the office,” he said.
He spent 15 years in campus ministry at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and wanted to return to that work. “I ended up in Washington state at what was then St. Martin College, in Lacey, and I was there from ’94 to ’97,” he said.
Prior to his retirement, Father Frerker was pastor of a parish in Cahokia, Ill., but when he retired he decided to return to Olympia, near where he had worked in campus ministry at what is now St. Martin University. “I love the climate,” he says with enthusiasm, “and I love the fact that it’s not hot and humid, as it is in southern Illinois.”
He says that he was in the seminary “as long as you could be at the time,” beginning with his first year of high school. “And in that high school seminary, two teachers, a layman and a priest, turned us, our class, on to literature and drama, movies and writing, and ever since then I’ve wanted to write. I didn’t have much time for writing, of course, aside from sermons and so forth.”
During his years in campus ministry in Illinois, Father Frerker found himself in the company of literary people from the university, “including,” he recalls, “the late American novelist John Gardner,” who was quite prominent at the time. “Many people knew that I wanted to write, and several were pushing me to do something.” During the summer of 1981, the priest finally began work on what eventually became the third of his mystery novels.
“I was writing on a portable typewriter, and later I found out that I had about 17,000 words, and the story was nowhere near complete.”
The pages Father Frerker had written languished, however, until years later, after he left campus ministry in Illinois, in 1987. “I got a longer summer break that year,” he said, “and I was able to spend a month in Florida, with friends. He spent the time adding another 64,000 words to what he had already written. “I probably had it finished by ’90, but it was an unwieldy 90,000 words. I kept whittling away at it, and editing it, because, in part, I thought I might be able to get an agent, or a publisher, but that didn’t happen. So I just kept working on it.”
When he finally retired for good, in 2000, the aspiring author turned his attention to another mystery story. “I had always said that I’m happy enough writing these, and if they never get published it’s been a lot of fun, and that remains true,” he said. “At any rate, I started looking into publishing. I had put it off, not only because I thought I might get lucky and get a publishing company, but because I had been scared off by the price of self-publishing. I had been quoted some prices 10 years earlier, and I didn’t have that kind of money, so I didn’t want to do that. But now I looked into it again, and it had become significantly cheaper. So I began working on self-publishing, and I finally put out the first novel, Heat.” That was in 2003.
He has followed up with a new novel each year since then. The most recent is the volume he began working on in 1987. That book, titled Conspiracy, appeared earlier this year.
He says he began by writing mysteries “because several friends, as well as myself, figured that it would be better to do the lighter fare and see if that works, and see if I can develop a base of readers. When, this year, I finally put out the book I began first, instead of 90,000 words it was about 67,000. It’s a leaner, much better book.”
The third novel Father Jack Frerker wrote, titled Connections, is the one that isn’t a mystery. “It’s about the relationship between a priest and his bishop,” he said, “and it’s set in an unidentified location. It has nothing to do with the mystery novels. I wanted to play with stereotypes, and destroy a few of them, in a way. The way I do it in this novel is that the bishop is not well liked by a lot of people. As the priest character gets to know the bishop he learns that, yes the bishop is human, and he has his flaws, but there is a whole lot more to him than many people seem to know. So the priest gets to know the bishop quite well. So I wanted to deal with several facts about bishops, that often they end up somewhere where they’re not known, therefore there’s not much of a support system waiting for them. It can be a very lonely and challenging job. Many bishops really are very good guys who are trying hard. They may or may not come off looking well. The one in my novel doesn’t. So I wanted to look at that. I give readers a sort of behind-the-scenes look at priesthood, and bishops, but overall I really hope that people begin to look at the relationships in their own lives, stop taking them for granted, and start realizing how important they are, and nurture them.”
The priest sleuth in Father Frerker’s three mysteries is in the tradition of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
“Father Brown was something of a model for my character, Father John Wintermann,” the priest said. “He’s like him and not like him. Father John is in his early 60s, and he is not one of the movers and shakers in his diocese. He’s not known as bright, or theological. He doesn’t even preach well, by his own admission. But he is a people person and very effective at that. In a way, he’s someone you would not expect would be able to do these things, just as Father Brown is an unlikely character.”
People who know Father Frerker sometimes say, “Oh, well, you’re Father John,” but the author demurs. “Not really at all,” he says with a smile. “He’s younger than I am, he doesn’t want to retire, and I preach better than he does.”
Compared to other contemporary fictional priest detectives, Father Frerker says that his Father John Wintermann is unique. “Father (Andrew) Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan is certainly a more high profile dude,” he said. “Like Father Brown, Father John is kind of a nobody. He hasn’t distinguished himself in any ways you might think of when you think of high profile priests. But more than all of that, Father John is from southern Illinois, and southern Illinois has not had a lot of literary works written about it. So I decided that I wanted to profile the area both for what I like about it, what I think they should be proud of, and for its quirkiness. So he’s a southern Illinois priest, and he’s happy about that.”
The fictional priest lives in a small town. “The first novel makes a big deal of him being curious,” Father Frerker says. “Like a lot of residents in small towns, he’s interested to know everything about everybody, and he sort of laments the fact that he’s never had anything he could sink his teeth into. It’s all been gossipy stuff – and, all of a sudden, he gets something. Now, after three novels, he’s developing a reputation, I suppose. In this latest book, he has to deal with the police a whole lot more than in the earlier books.”
Father Frerker says that his fictional priest, Father John, can’t really be type cast as either liberal or conservative. “He’s neither,” Father Frerker says. “He’s right in the middle. He’s not somebody who wants to push and shove about a lot of stuff. He’s hardly an avant garde theologian. But he’s not lost in the 1500s, either. So he’s somewhere in-between.”
Father Frerker says that if there is a theme that ties all three of his mystery novels together, it would be one of healing.
“In all of the novels,” he said, “there are elements of pastoral activity and pastoral healing. In the first book, Heat, Father John brings healing to a couple of people who are connected with the lady who died. He brings healing to a whole family of people in the second book, Solstice. And in the final mystery, Conspiracy, he brings healing to the perpetrator of most of the crimes.”
(Father Frerker will present his novels Wednesday evening, Oct. 11, at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main in Spokane, at 7:30 p.m.)