Here’s the story of how a famous architect and the liturgy-reforming monks of St. John’s Abbey collaborated to create a very special modern church in the middle of Minnesota.
For more than 50 years, motorists and passengers on I-94 some 60 miles north of the Twin Cities have seen an enormous concrete structure peeking above the treetops to the south as they near the exit for Collegeville and St. John’s University.
The flat trapezoid, the row of bells and the cross in the cutout at the top are a beacon for the modern wonder of a church below.
Now the story of how that massive architectural masterpiece came to be has been captured in a University of Minnesota Press book, “Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.”
Victoria M. Young, with access to never-before-seen archives from both the abbey and the architect, tells the story of the development of the history-making worship space. Young is a professor and the chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
As she gives the behind-the-scenes details of the planning for and building of the Abbey Church, Young persistently reminds readers why this worship space is architecturally significant.
Several keys to success
Nestled as it is in the middle of the country, far from the architectural centers on either coast, the Abbey Church was:
- Designed by a famous architect, Marcel Breuer.
- The architect collaborated with his client — the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Monastery.
- Their collaboration called for the use modern materials, modern engineering and modern construction methods.
- Their goal was to create a worship space for the modern Catholic liturgy, the laity-including Mass that the monks themselves had experimented with and championed as leaders in the 20th century liturgical movement.
“The collaboration between the Benedictines and Marcel Breuer and his architectural team reveals important themes in mid-century religious architecture,” Young noted.
“Central to the subject is how the building operates as a vessel for the reformed liturgy, reconciling the visions of a modern architect and the traditions of his monastic patrons.”
Beginning in the 1920s, St. John’s had become the American center of the liturgical movement due to the passionate efforts of its monks, notably Father Virgil Michel. The reform liturgy stressed the participation of the laity in the Mass, the use of the vernacular (the language of the people instead of Latin) and the repositioning of the altar so that the priest faced the people as he led them in prayer.
The result was that Breuer designed a worship space with no pillars blocking views and no seat more than 85 feet from the altar.
“This building project announced the Benedictines as leaders of liturgical reform within monasticism and confirmed Marcel Breuer’s position as one of the most innovative architects of the mid-century,” Young wrote.
“Their relationship was an architectural collaboration of the highest level. Knowledgeable clients carefully delivered a plan for reinvigorated worship and liturgy to a skillful architect, who sensitively shaped a space to support it.”
With access to letters between Breuer and the monks and to the architect’s handwritten notes on drafts of the design plans, Young is able to answer questions such as why did the monks want Breuer, and why did Breuer want the job.
Ahead of the liturgical curve
With the project first beginning in 1953, construction started in 1958 and completed in 1961, the building of this modern worship space preceded the promulgation of the new liturgy by Pope Paul VI by several years.
“The Benedictines were looking beyond their history as they planned their church,” Young told The Catholic Spirit. “Both the monks and Breuer took a leap of faith.”
Although he was a well-regarded architect, Breuer had never designed a church, she said.
“Architects want to explore different things, different building types,” Young added. “Designing a church was really interesting to him.”
Breuer also liked the project because the commission was for a campus master plan. “He liked the scale of the project,” Young said.
And the monk’s desire for a modern church allowed for the use of modern materials, specifically concrete, just coming into fashion for architectural design after World War II.
“Breuer loved the ability to shape and create space,” Young said, “and concrete gave him the ability to do that.”
Building the Abbey Church also put St. Paul construction company McGough on the map. “Larry McGough told me that it changed their company,” Young said. The experience that McGough’s team derived from developing new ways to build and the notoriety from having built the Abbey Church set McGough on a trajectory to do other large projects.
An architect who listened
The author repeatedly pulls readers back to one point, that it was the collaboration between the Benedictines and Breuer that was crucial to the outcome.
Breuer was one of five architects with great reputations who the monks invited to Collegeville to discuss their vision for the church they wanted to build. It was April 17, 1953.
“A powerful moment occurs when Breuer comes to St. John’s and he doesn’t speak much the whole first day,” Young said.
Instead, Breuer asked questions and listened to the Benedictines about their vision for their church. That was the kind of collaborative relationship the monks sought.
“They wanted to engage a designer of great character,” Young wrote, “someone who would listen as well as inform, a designer with whom they could collaborate to create significant monastic and liturgical space that would serve their order for the coming century.”
As a result, during the three-year construction period many modifications in Breuer’s design were made because of input from the monks.
“Shaping space around the new liturgy was, for the Benedictines, central to their role in the Catholic world, and their church needed to uphold this mission,” Young noted.
The full story
“Saint John’s Abbey Church,” while underscoring the compatibility of Breuer and the Benedictines, includes no small amount of space to the tensions that rose as the project went on.
There’s significant coverage of the disagreement about who should design the most significant work of art in the building, the huge stained glass window that makes up almost the entirety of the north wall. Breuer wanted Bauhaus artist Josef Albers; the monks chose Bronislaw Bak, a
St. John’s faculty member.
“Even today,” Young pointed out, “Bak’s window is still a source of debate for the monks and scholars. “Many at Collegeville wonder how Albers’ window would have changed the space and feeling of the church.”
Nor does the book ignore that fact that not everyone likes the Abbey Church.
“Not all were ready for such a brazen statement within religious architecture,” Young pointed out.
“For many, modernism was not an appropriate building style for the Catholic faith.”
Critics used terms to describe the Abbey Church such as “devoid of beauty,” “utilitarian” and an “ecclesiastical garage.”
Others, however, admired it, calling the Abbey Church “the most exciting thing in church architecture since Michelangelo’s great dome,” “one of the great sacred buildings of our time” and “a milestone in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country.”
Young, a member of Our Lady of Angels parish in Minneapolis and a Minnesota native who grew up in Comfrey in the southwestern part of the state, said that although she specializes in modern architectural history, she appreciates more traditional church designs as well.
Church architecture typically reflects the vision of “a group of people trying to figure out what would be good for that moment,” she said. “There’s a reason why it exists.
“When people say, ‘This is not a vessel for the liturgy,’ I say, ‘Have you been there?’ ”
- Friday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: Evening Prayer in the Abbey and University Church in Collegeville, followed at 7:45 p.m. by a talk by author Victoria M. Young, “Breuer and the Benedictines: A Modern Collaboration,” in the Abbey Chapter House. Book signing and reception afterward.
- Saturday, Oct. 25, 10 a.m.: Tour of the Abbey and University Church by Victoria M. Young. 11:15 to noon: Book signing in the St. John’s University bookstore.
- Sunday, Nov. 16, 2 p.m.: Reading, reception and book signing in the sanctuary of Christ Church Lutheran, 3244 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis.