Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Day at the Abbey

My friend Eduard (above right) is currently visiting me from Chicago. On Monday we went with my friend Rick to St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine abbey located in Collegeville, just outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Above and below: The original abbey church.

For many years this church had two steeples - one atop each of its two bell towers. At some point however, they were removed. Perhaps it was around the time of the construction of the new, post-modern styled abbey church (see images further down). Maybe the designer of this new church didn’t want too much competition from the old!

Above: The beautiful interior of the original abbey church.

Above: The abbey is home to the St. John’s Bible - which Eduard found particularly interesting.

Above and below: St. John’s University is located next to the abbey.

While on the university campus we visited the Liturgical Press bookstore where I bought three books: By What Authority: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful by Richard R. Gaillardetz, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood by George B. Wilson, S.J., and Feminist Liturgy: A Matter of Justice by Janet R. Walton. Eduard also found a couple of titles that interested him, including The Ceremonial of Bishops and The Byzantine Rite: A Short History.

Above and below: Side views of Saint John’s Abbey Church.

The bell banner (above at left) stands 112 feet above the pavement and is 100 feet wide at its apex. It’s made of 2,500 tons of concrete and heavy steel reinforcing rods. The footings extend twenty feet into the ground.

Saint John’s Abbey Church is certainly a unique building. Designed by Marcel Breuer, it was built between 1953 and 1961. The original abbey church can be seen at right.

Above and below: The interior of St. John’s Abbey Church.

In the book, Marcel Breuer: Buildings and Projects 1921-1961, Cranston Jones notes that: “The main floor plan [of the church] reflects the basic liturgical concepts of the [Benedictine] Order: one enters the symbolic center doorway, down the center aisle to the altar and abbot's throne, around which is placed the very large choir for 300. The relation of abbot's throne and monks’ choir to the congregation of 1,700 defines the shape of the plan with the altar near the center of the church in plain view of congregation, choir, and large balcony.”

Although I can appreciate certain aspects of the interior of St. John’s Abbey Church, its overall utilitarian look nevertheless reminds me of a Soviet-era train station!

Above: The honeycombed stained glass window of the church’s facade is perhaps the most beautiful component of St. John’s Abbey Church.

This massive window was designed by Bronislaw Bak, a former member of the art department of St. John’s University, and is said to represent the “splendor of the liturgical year.”

Above: Rick with a statue depicting Mary, the Christ Child, St. Benedict, and St. Scholastica.

Above: Eduard in the darkened interior of the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud, Minnesota - Monday, March 10, 2008.

For a picture of the abbey in summer, click here.


crystal said...

Nice photos. I first read about the abbey in the book The Cloister Walk.

Dan said...

I think I actually agree with you about something! I had to avert my eyes as I scrolled down from the beautiful original church to the new. WHY, OH WHY?! I really dislike the style of bunker architecture where one can see the imprint of the boards used to form the concrete. :P

The window is somewhat interesting, but too reminiscent of a honeycomb. Your comment regarding the soviet-era station is spot on. Come in and melt into the hive collective. Blech!

Fr. J. said...

The style is called brutalism---and for good reason.

jamez said...

I agree that when you walk into the empty church the space seems cold and utilitarian. However, when filled with people, or even when at daily Eucharist up in the choir, you feel a certain closeness to the people and the action of liturgical prayer. As there is nowhere else to distract the eye too much, you find yourself making icons of the others present are compelled somehow to be more attentive to the movements of the liturgy itself. This, I think, was the idea they had in mind. St. Bernard detested all the pomp and pretentiousness of the Great Church Architecture of his time and, thus, Cistersian Architecture is also given to a rather brutal plainness.

Still, I have also experienced liturgy in the old church and find it to be of a more human scale. It was all Hallows Mass 1985 and the old church was packed with everyone sitting on the floor and such. There were candle lit pumpkins carved with crosses and the whole ambiance was breathtakingly Incarnate.