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 just existence, more than just a social event. An idea is there, an attitude toward faith, an attempt to solve 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? Will the 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 birth right. It is part of its function to reach beyond function. Its destiny seems to be to express in static material – stone, concrete, glass – man’s drive towards the spiritual. The inanimate structure reflects 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 to receive demonstrative and symbolic dimensions. (M. Breuer)

The Saint John’s Abbey Church is no ordinary Catholic Church. It is enriched with the history and values of the Benedictine monks who worship there and it also opens the eyes of all who encounter it. Simply walking past the large banner at the front of the church will strike awe in one’s heart and mind; that experience was intentionally created. Many people do not realize that the architecture of the Saint John’s Abbey Church was designed specifically to create such an experience and to establish a specific atmosphere. Following in this paper, I plan to show the history of Benedictine architecture and its influence, plus the incorporation of the Second Vatican Council, on how the monks and the architect of the Abbey Church came together to construct 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 Saint John’s Abbey Church radiates a sense of community and other characteristics that I strongly believe people of all backgrounds and faiths can have an appreciation for. Many people might not deem this as important information and that it should be relevant to 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
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intentions of the architecture of the Church substantial to their experience at Saint John’s and why would it enrich their lives more? These are difficult questions to answer. And as an individual who thinks from a theological standpoint, it is hard not to jump to the assumption that all 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 how one who is not necessarily religious could come to appreciate the uniqueness of the Church. A good starting point would be to look at why and how the monks came to choose a non-Catholic architect to help fulfill this need, and by doing so one will have a better insight of the church and the community in and around it. In 1953, when the monks of the Saint John’s Abbey decided it was time to build a new church, they brought in 12 renowned architects to the campus, and out of the 12 they chose Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer*1 to design and build the new Abbey Church. In Carlson’s article he describes that the monks chose Breuer because of his friendly, observant, and humble appeal (2). Breuer himself was not overtly religious, but the monks stated in Shirley ReiffHowarth’s book Marcel Breuer: Concrete and the Cross, that, “Breuer is a religious man only he does not know it yet” (25). They trusted in his belief of the virtue of simplicity and his thoughtful use of textures and materials. Breuer’s modern style also interested the monks. One can say that Modernism and monasticism have similar outlooks of the world. In Carlson’s article, he mentions that both are “based on simplicity, the community of artists, quality for the sake of every man, and utopian values” (2). The monks were interested in returning to the essentials of liturgy, theology, and to the nature of their mission in the world and they trusted that Breuer was “able to create places of worship that ‘demonstrate a sensitivity for spiritual

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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 have continually pursued architecture that suggests spiritual advancement. Their specific architecture ties closely in with their values and traditions. Benedictines have always treasured the importance of prayer, thoughtfulness, community, hospitality, stability, the arts, and so on. In Geoffrey Simmins article “Order and Light: the Architecture of Two Benedictine Abbey Churches in Western Canada”, Benedictines believe that “Stability and a search for beauty, both natural and creatively ordered, go hand in hand” (3) and this belief has continually influenced their attitude towards architecture.Simmins mentions in his article that,
Stemming from the vow of stability, Benedictines foster a tradition of excellence, combined with a willingness to encourage architectural experimentation – and a willingness to build up to, and sometimes beyond, their means, as a way of creating a fitting tribute to God (21).

Traditionally, Gothic architecture has been the style for Benedictine churches. Gothic style churches*2 are of large size, unusual materials, bold, and command one’s attention; they are created 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 decorated facades and vaulted interiors, meant to awe those who approach and to inspire them to envision something bigger than this 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 understand how the Abbey Church encompasses those distinctive values, a more in-depth look at what Marcel Breuer and the monksenvisioned for the inner and outer design of the church is necessary. But before diving into the design and description of the church, I want to first look at poem written by
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Breuer in his book Buildings and Projects, which I think helps give life to what architecture is to him.
Colors which you can hear with ears; Sounds to see with eyes; The void you touch with your elbows; The taste of space on your tongue; The fragrance of dimensions; The juice of stone. (Breuer, 9)

The exterior and interior of the Saint John’s Abbey Church*3 are inspired by traditional Gothic churches but has its own unique modern charm; this can be seen in the design of the church. Everything about the church was intended for a specific function and/or purpose. In Jeff Horwich’s article “Still Controversial, the Abbey Church Turns 40”, “Brutalism”, which is the term the monks at Saint John’s have come to call Breuer’s style, features “giant structures of rough, unadorned concrete surfaces with a sampling of local granite” (1). This provides a very “natural” and “honest” appeal to the building, which distinctively represents Benedictine custom. The shape of the banner is uniquely shaped to be similar to the banners that are carried in processions (Howarth, 6, 7). It also has its functional requirements. Robert F. Gatje, a former employee of Breuer’s, writes in Marcel Breuer: A Memoir that Breuer designed the banner “to stand as a campanile for the abbey’s five great bells and was to reflect sunlight through the stained glass of the main façade of the building” (47-48) and the four huge legs of the banner that form the Eiffel Tower-like arches are meant to form a “symbol of entry” (48). In general, the exterior of the church is meant to create interest and be welcoming to those who come into its presence, moving their interest to what is inside this great church. This now takes the focus to the interior of the church and how it was influenced by the changes going on within the Roman Catholic Church.

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During the time of the construction of the Saint John’s Abbey Church, it is important to know that there was a reformation happening in the Vatican. The Saint John’s Abbey was in full support of the restructuring going on within the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican was beginning to change, shifting from a more authoritative, traditional church setting, to a communal and personal setting. The Saint John’s Church had taken on a bell-shaped layout rather than the traditional Latin cross arrangement; the monks felt that the monastic choir should be fully visible to the congregation. This design was intended to accentuate a sense of community during the liturgy. According to Louis P. Nelson’s book American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces, with the congregation and monastic choir facing each other and surrounding the Altar, the worshipping community is able to witness itself as “the people of God” (136). This communal experience is what the Second Vatican Council decided upon for the future of Catholic Churches. The main emphasis for the design of the interior of the Saint John’s Abbey Church was on the Sacraments of ‘Baptism and the Holy Eucharist” (The Record, 4/23/1954). As one enters through the front doors of the church, he or she encounters the baptismal font*4. Having the baptistery at the front of the church is a traditional design of early European churches which was meant to remind all who enter the importance of baptism. At the Saint John’s Abbey Church standsa sculpture of John the Baptist at the head of the baptismal font with his hand out to all who enter in order to remind them of this particular importance. Continuing into the sanctuary, one cannot help but be drawn to the Altar*5 at the center of the church. The amber-colored sky light illuminates the Altar with natural sunlight. By placing the Altar at the center of the sanctuary, it is not traditional of the early churches, but it creates intimacy between the congregation, the monastic community, and their worship together as the
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Body of Christ. One will notice a giant orange tapestry that is covering a beautifully adorned organ. This is purposely put there to not distract the congregation in worship; their main focal point should be that of the Altar. Looking back toward the entrance, one can see the 540 hexagonal stained glass windows*6 which illuminate the sanctuary with wonderful color. The designer of the windows intended to create a specific atmosphere in the church. BronislawBak was the designer and facilitator of the plan for the stained glass windows. In a1960 interview published inThe Record, Bak claimedthat if “one wishes to make a church prayerful, a particular arrangement or design can produce such an effect” (Steinbronn, 2). The abstract message of the stain glass windows is of the resurrection, but “underlying this theme are the various seasons of the liturgical year […]” (Steinbronn, 2). Put together with their cool color tones, the numerous stained glass windows are meant to yield a feeling of prayerfulness and thoughtfulness of all who see it, which is important to the monks, especially in their practice of lectiodivina, which is the “contemplative, prayerful reading of the Scriptures” (Dysinger). Apart from the design of the windows, one could hardly miss the enormous balcony above the nave of the sanctuary. If looked at closely, one will notice that it is not attached to any of the surrounding walls but is simply being held up by two giant concrete legs; this is once again meant to create awe and wonder with the illusion that it is defying gravity and geometrical proportions. The reason the balcony is cantilevered over the majority of the nave instead of completely behind it is because of the idea of having the congregation as close to the Altar as possible, which Marcel Breuer designed to reiterate a close sense of community that the monks desired. Altogether, with the floor seating and the balcony seating, the sanctuary is able to hold up to 1,700 people in its communal arrangement.
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Originally, Breuer and his team had planned on painting the interior of the church, but after taking down the frame the bare concrete had beautifully designed itself. The lines of the concrete were clean and there was something about the raw material that made the unpainted interior one of a kind. Breuer felt that the “untreated concrete, brick, granite, and dark oak woodwork seem expressive of the austerity, humility, and continence of monastic life” (Carlson, 4). All in all, the design of the Abbey Church is meant to summon a certain kind of worship. An atmosphere of contemplative prayer and an awareness of God in the abstract and in the events of everyday life are created by the design of the church. The vaulted ceilings, the natural lighting, and the large cantilevered balcony strike awe into the hearts of those who worship or visit the church. The architecture radiates a place of community, peace, stability, dignity, and moderation, all which are of Benedictine values.ArntCobbers states in his book Marcel Breuer: 1902-1981, Form Giver of the 20th Century, that the design “was to provide an adequate architectural expression of the feeling of community within this reform-oriented Abbey” (59). There is something timeless about the Saint John’s Abbey Church; it instills an impression on all who come across it. In Simmins article he states that,
Benedictines believe that architecture can affect positively the way that one lives; they believe that innovation should be welcomed; they believe that quality is visible and exerts a positive effect on people, whether they live in a particular place or just visit it (22).

When Benedictine’s plan and build, they do it for the next centuries to come; they create something that will be appropriate for any time period, as if the architecture itself is eternal. Howarth states, “There the structure stands, its story is told by the eternal laws of geometry, gravity, space” (28). This is why I argue that knowing the intentions behind the architecture of the Saint John’s Abbey Church is so important, because I believe that it can have a positive
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effect on all kinds of people. Scott Carlson put it into words that describes this sensation best, “the modern age may seem godless, but architecture like this can still strike one silent with wonder” (1). My hope is to stir that wonder and curiosity in the students of Saint John’s and Saint Benedict and the people who visit, to look deeper into their surroundings and to profoundly appreciate it all.I argue that one will gain a better sense of place, meaning that one will be able to understand more clearly how and why things work the way they do at Saint John’s. The Abbey Church encompasses many of the Benedictine virtues, particularly a sense of community. One does not necessarily need to be religious to appreciate the feeling of community, because everyone longs to belong. The unique architecture has become personally significant to my understanding of how the monastic community lives and engages in the atmosphere of Saint John’s and I come to learn and appreciate the depth of meaning and beauty found in the artistic church, even from a nondenominational mindset. Because of this, I believe that is highly possible for all walks of faith and backgrounds to develop a personal appreciation for the Saint John’s Abbey Church by simply taking the time to get to know more about it. In order to argue that all backgrounds and beliefs are able to gain from knowing about the architecture and history of the Abbey Church, I need to put myself in the shoes of someone who is not necessarily religious. Why should this religious piece of architecture be significant in his or her experience at Saint John’s? Why would knowing the history of the Abbey Church improve my involvement at Saint John’s? These are just a few of the questions I imagine people would ask. People from all different background and faiths can gain at least one significant thing from knowing more about the history and architecture of the Abbey Church and that would be a sense of place. Even though one may not be religious, they are still on a religious campus, either
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as a student, professor, or visitor, and will encounter it at some point and time. He or she needs to understand that the Abbey Church is an important landmark and symbol for the community at Saint John’s. The purposeful architecture and rich history of how Benedictine’s worship, overflows into the classrooms and shapes the community at Saint John’s University. This can also be seen in Marcel Breuer’s experience while constructing the Abbey Church at Saint John’s. Breuer was not Catholic, but Jewish, and prior to his time at Saint John’s, he had no “experience with religious designs” (Carlson, 2), yet he was totally capable of encompassing the virtues and values of the monastic life in the Abbey Church. He was able to do this by working with the monks and reaching into their deep history of how they practiced and worshipped. Breuer did not have to be Catholic to appreciate his time at Saint John’s, and the magnificent pieces of architecture that he designed for the campus and monastery radiate his passion and commitment to creating an atmosphere that expresses Benedictine values and modernism. In conclusion, I hope that after reading about the history of Benedictine architecture, the monks reasoning for choosing Marcel Breuer, the intentions behind the architecture, and how it was influenced by the Second Vatican Council, people are now able to have a personal appreciation for the Saint John’s Abbey Church and how it affects their experience at Saint John’s. Not everyone will have the same views and thoughts about the church, but that was not my intended purpose for this paper. Appreciation for something like the Abbey Church should be personal and unique to each individual, whether it is religious, artistic, historic, or simply how the intended atmosphere of the church affects one’s sense of place. My intentions, like that of the monumental size of the Saint John’s Abbey Church, are to create a sense of wonder and engage students into the unique surroundings of the community of Saint John’s.

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