REGINA — It’s a love story infused with Catholicism, the teachings of the Catholic Church, guardian angels and life lessons wrapped in a series of five volumes that has sold more than 200,000 books (that’s not a typo) mostly in Canada. It’s called The Angelic Letters, written by Regina artist, now author, Henry Ripplinger.
He had already established himself as one of Canada’s premiere artists with his works hanging in galleries and private collections, when what he describes as a profound spiritual experience set him on a course that took him in directions he never imagined.
I have known Henry for more than 50 years as teacher, counsellor, artist, businessman and a very good carpenter. I continue to be amazed at his versatility, his skills, his depth and his faith.
I sat with him for a morning interview, Nov. 9, at the home he built on the lip of an offshoot valley from the Qu’Appelle valley, about a 20-minute drive northwest of Regina.
“I always loved drawing and sketching in school,” Ripplinger said, but it wasn’t until he took a night class at Balfour Technical High School in 1970 that it became a passion. “I would sometimes paint all night.” Five years after that class he held a show on the top floor of the Saskatchewan Power Corporation Head Office and sold everything. From there his career as an artist took off. But being an artist was not his first choice.
“A teacher who rented a room at my mom’s place told me I had the personality to be a counsellor.” He admitted he wasn’t a good student and wanted to quit high school at Balfour, “but my sister convinced my mom to send me to Campion College (a Jesuit high school at the time) so they could ‘straighten me out,’ ” he laughed. Ripplinger entered engineering after high school “just to be with the boys,” but that lasted just one year. He took his credits from that, applied it to education and began teaching physics and science at Campbell Collegiate after graduation. He soon found himself talking to students during and after school in counselling sessions and, using sabbatical time, worked on his counselling certification, eventually becoming a full-time counsellor. It was during that time he decided to take that night art class that began his life as an artist.
Ripplinger requested and was granted a change in his counselling to half time so he could also concentrate on his art, which continued to grow. He took a year leave of absence in 1984 to pursue his art and received several commissions, including a 75th anniversary piece for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “In that year my income exceeded my teaching income so I decided to leave education and started painting full time.” He and his wife, Joan, purchased the valley property in 1980 and he began building around the log cabin on the property to include a studio.
Ripplinger also had his eye on an old three-story-house on 14th avenue and Smith St. in Regina’s core area as a possible gallery. “It was a mess but I could see past the mess and bought it on the spot.” With the design done by architect friend, Len Pauls, he hired a young carpenter graduate to help him restore the house into an art gallery with a café. The Ripplinger Fine Art Gallery and Picture Framing with the café on 14th Avenue also contains an exclusive women’s fashion outlet on the second floor and the café boasts a collection of art objects for sale.
Although Ripplinger had aspired to write a self-help book when he was a counsellor, his art overshadowed that pursuit. It was not until his senior years that God’s divine providence would lead him to realize his dream.
“One of the real estate people I dealt with (he had purchased revenue houses as an investment to build a pension) came to the gallery in 2000 and said, ‘Henry you have to see this house on Hill Avenue.’ I told him no, I have enough, I don’t need any more, but maybe Jason (his son who worked with him and now owns the business) might be interested. So, we went to the house. As soon as I entered the house I felt a powerful spiritual presence; the antique furniture was beautiful, there was an open book, Mere Christianity by C.S Lewis, on a chair — a book I was reading — and it was open on the same chapter I was reading at home; the book shelves contained books I was reading or had read or would have purchased; there was a recipe on the kitchen counter for one of my favourite dishes; it was like the owner had just walked out the back door and I walked in. Everything was left, the furniture, books, everything. All the owner took were pictures. There were even personal letters left behind. Incredibly, Jason didn’t want the house but I had to buy it. Rather than rent it out right away, I would come there to get away from the business and spend time reading and thinking about the previous owner.”
Eventually he and Joan moved all the furniture and books to their home above the valley and rented out the house, but it continued to haunt him.
Five years later, 2005, Ripplinger was sitting in his favourite chair in the sunroom watching the sun come up over the valley below, “thinking about Marjorie (former owner of the Hill Avenue house), a kindred spirit. I began thinking about 1956 when I was 15 and met a girl, a first love, a first kiss, and it struck me, there’s a love story here. What if circumstances separated us, we wrote letters to each other but they were kept from us, we found others, married had children, but never forgot each other and years later were re-united.”
Ripplinger took up pen and paper and started to write the first book, Pewter Angels. It became an immediate bestseller and tied for a Gold Medal for Religious Fiction from Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards). “My initial purpose was to write a book about this extraordinary experience, but it just kept flowing. It took three books to finally write about this experience that initially motivated me to write in the first place.”
The books tell the story of Jenny Sarsky and Henry Pederson, who met at 15 years of age and knew immediately they had a connection. Jenny is raped by another, conceives and the child is given up for adoption. One of Henry’s sons comes home one day with a Jenny look-alike who turns out to be the child Jenny conceived. Henry’s wife dies, Jenny gets divorced, becomes ill and decides to return to her Regina home. Henry unknowingly buys her house when she enters hospital; Henry discovers a diary in a secret furniture drawer, realizes it’s Jenny’s and they are reunited.
“While it is this spirit-filled love story that weaves and ties the series together, the real essence of the story are the life teachings revealed by its lead characters, especially Father Engelmann — a profoundly wise and endearing holy man living out the Word of God. He not only becomes Henry’s lifelong mentor but touches the hearts of countless readers through his wisdom, insights and impeccable character,” said Ripplinger.
Ripplinger said about 80 per cent of the story is about his life’s spiritual journey. He showed me several emails from people who say the books have returned them to the Catholic faith. “They tell about Catholicism and Christ’s lessons through the story, it’s not theology or the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” Several priests, nuns and educators suggested the books should be required reading in schools.
Ripplinger believes he has been given a gift to write these books “It’s just been a real miracle in my life.”
The seven-part inspirational fiction series Angelic Letters includes, to date: Pewter Angels, Another Angel of Love, Angel of Thanksgiving, The Angelic Occurrence, and Angel Promises Fulfilled. Book six, The House Where Angels Dwell, will be available in spring 2017.