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Published by Pippa Quiram

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Pippa Quiram on Nov 11, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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1 |Q u i r a m
Saint John’s Abbey Church: Finding a Personal Appreciation in One’s Community
Philippa J. Quiram (Schneider)Fall 2010
… A place of worship, simple as it may be, serviceable as it need be, is –or should be –different from a mere place of assembly. Something is happening there which is more than justexistence, more than just a social event. An idea is there, an attitude toward faith, an attempt tosolve life’s problems. Should one consider a church, a temple (as small or confined as it may be)a part of infinite space? May we hope that its geometry could be a part of cosmic geometry? Willthe planes of its structure point toward distance without end?Modest as it may be, a place of worship seems to demand dignity and serenity as its birthright. It is part of its function to reach beyond function. Its destiny seems to be to express in staticmaterial stone, concrete, glass man’s drive towards the spiritual. The inanimate structurereflects the vibrations of his thoughts, of his emotions, of his beliefs. The sober science of building and engineering has to achieve more than a routine solution: the routine solution has toreceive demonstrative and symbolic dimensions. (M. Breuer)
The Saint John’s Abbey Church is no ordinary Catholic Church. It is enriched with thehistory and values ofthe Benedictine monks who worship there and it also opens the eyes of allwho encounter it. Simply walking past the large banner at the front of the church will strike awein one’s heart and mind; that experience wasintentionally created. Many people do not realizethat the architecture of the Saint John’s Abbey Church was designed specifically to create suchan experience and to establish a specific atmosphere. Following in this paper, I plan to show thehistory of Benedictine architecture and its influence, plus the incorporation of the SecondVatican Council, on how the monks and the architect of the Abbey Church came together toconstruct such a purposeful masterpiece that is tucked away in the privacy of Collegeville,Minnesota. All this is in hopes to bring about a realization that the architecture of the SaintJohn’s Abbey Church radiates a sense of community and other characteristics that I stronglybelieve people of all backgroundsand faiths can have an appreciation for.Many people might not deem this as important information and that it should be relevantto them, especially non-religious people. They look at the Abbey Church and what do they see?It’s just another church. Why should it be significant to them? How is understanding the
2 |Q u i r a m
intentions of the architecture of the Church substantial to their experienceat Saint John’s andwhy would it enrich their lives more? These are difficult questions to answer. And as anindividual who thinks from a theological standpoint, it is hard not to jump to the assumption thatall people should benefit spiritually from knowing about the Abbey Church. I have to step out of my comfort zone, and look at it from another’s perspective. I have to try and understand howone who is not necessarily religious could come to appreciate the uniqueness of the Church. Agood starting point would be to lookat why and how the monks came to choose a non-Catholicarchitect to help fulfill this need, and by doing so one will have a better insight of the church andthe community in and around it.In 1953, when the monks of the Saint John’sAbbey decided it was time to build anew church, they brought in 12 renowned architects to the campus, and out of the 12 they choseHungarian architect Marcel Breuer
to design and build the new Abbey Church. In Carlson’sarticle he describes that the monks chose Breuer because of his friendly, observant, and humbleappeal (2). Breuer himself was not overtly religious, but the monks stated in ShirleyReiffHowarth’s book 
 Marcel Breuer: Concrete and the Cross
, that, “Breuer is a religious manonly he does not know it yet” (25). They trusted in his belief of the virtue of simplicity and histhoughtful use of textures and materials. Breuer’s modern style also interested the monks. Onecan say that Modernism and monasticism have similar outlooks of the world. In Carlson’sarticle, he mentions that both are “based on simplicity, the community of artists, quality for thesake of every man, and utopian values” (2). The monks were interested in returning to theessentials of liturgy, theology, and to the nature of their mission in the world and they trustedthat Breuer was “able to create places of worship that ‘demonstrate a sensitivity for spiritual
3 |Q u i r a m
feeling’” (Howarth, 25). This sensitivity for the spiritual can be seen in the history of Benedictine architecture.Benedictine historical church architecture has always been anagogical; they havecontinually pursued architecture that suggests spiritual advancement. Their specific architectureties closely in with their values and traditions. Benedictines have always treasuredtheimportance of prayer,thoughtfulness, community, hospitality, stability, the arts, and so on. InGeoffrey Simmins article “Order and Light: the Architecture of Two Benedictine AbbeyChurches in Western Canada”, Benedictines believe that “Stability and a search for beauty, bothnatural and creatively ordered, go hand in hand” (3) and this belief has continually influencedtheir attitude towards architecture.Simmins mentions in his article that,
Stemming from the vow of stability, Benedictines foster a tradition of excellence, combined with awillingness to encourage architectural experimentation –and a willingness to build up to, andsometimes beyond, their means, as a way of creating a fitting tribute to God (21).
Traditionally, Gothic architecture has been the style for Benedictinechurches. Gothic stylechurches
are of large size, unusual materials, bold, and command one’s attention; they arecreated to draw one’s gaze upward. In Scott Carlson’s article “Marcel Breuer at Saint John’s”,he mentions that,“Gothic churches of centuries ago, with their soaring, elaborately decoratedfacades and vaulted interiors, meant to awe those who approach and to inspire them to envisionsomething bigger thanthis world” (1). The Gothic churches of history inspired the monks of Saint John’s Abbey to create a new church that would house both the values and traditions of Benedictines and the needs for the growing student body.In order to fully understandhow theAbbey Church encompasses thosedistinctive values, a more in-depth look at what Marcel Breuerand the monksenvisioned for the inner and outerdesign of the church is necessary. But beforediving into the design and description of the church, I want to first look at poem written by

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