Tag Archives: St. John’s Abbey

Breuer and the Benedictines build a church

October 2, 2014

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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.

abbey church coverFor 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.

abbey monks & architects“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.”

Liturgical leaders

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.abbey drawing interior

“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.

abbey window“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.”

abbey photo of interiorOthers, 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?’ ”

Related events:

  • VictoriaYoungFriday, 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.
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Catholic writer J.F. Powers remembered through his letters

November 22, 2013

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“Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of a Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963,” edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 2013. 450 pp., $35.

powers cover

Spending the last few weeks peeking into the life of the late Catholic writer J. F. Powers through a collection of his letters made me wonder, does anyone write letters like these any more?

Powers, the long-time professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John University in Collegeville, used his gift for the language in frequent missives to friends and colleagues, which makes this collection of his letters read much like a memoir, or better yet a novel.

Perhaps cyberspace holds all the emails and social media messages we peck out nowadays, and perhaps and a tech-minded historian will be able to pull them down and gather them into book form. But I’d be surprised if any achieve the literary quality of those that Power’s daughter Katherine A. Powers has adroitly edited and packaged.

Take this sample from a letter in which he describes the long-time leader of St. John’s Abbey, Benedictine Abbot Alcuin Deutsch:

“He is a good man, but his last name is Deutsch, and if he’s like a lot of other Germans, and I think he is, he expects to get to heaven for not having made any impractical moves during his stay on earth. I have often wondered why they didn’t try to prove, somewhere along the line, that Jesus Christ received a gold watch for 33 years of service.”

That Powers ended up living much of his life in Minnesota’s German-plentiful Stearns County and working for the German Benedictines at St. John’s is just one of the ironies of the man’s life.

An good writer, but a poor one

“Suitable Accommodations” makes for interesting reading because it takes us into the mind of this unique character, a man author Evelyn Waugh tabbed “one of our greatest storytellers,” an author who won the National Book Award for his first novel yet never achieved the success he felt was his destiny.

Perhaps because his specialty was priests his was a limited audience and not populist fare.

The award-winning “Morte D’Urban,” the novel about a charming Midwestern priest who is as much a man of the world as he is a man of God, sold only 25,000 copies or so, and failed to receive the kind of promotion one might expect from a publisher like Doubleday.

Many of even the earliest letters — the collection covers 1942 to 1963 — foreshadow the life James Farl Powers was to live.

He refers to a steady job as “prostitution . . . masking itself as ‘honest labor.’ ”

He decries people who take the “safe” way through life with “a good position” or “in business for himself” with “nice homes.”

The irony, and it’s in the title of this collection, is that Powers was consistently writing in his letters about trying to find “suitable accommodations” both for his then-growing family and for a place with the peace and quiet to allow him to write.

Every so often he leans for money on his good friend Father Harvey Egan, pleading to the priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for funds to keep the wolf from the door until the mail brings a much-anticipated check for a short story he has submitted to The New Yorker or to one of the small-circulation literary magazines that have purchased his work over the years.

The late Father Egan, a one-of-a-kind himself as the pastor in later years of ultra-progressive St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, gets credit for preserving many of Powers’ letters.

None of which fits, however, when you read in a 1947 letter to Father Egan that Powers’ tastes in liturgy lean toward the conservative. Living in Avon, not far from where Powers is teaching at St. John’s University, he writes:

“We like to go to St. John’s [Abbey Church] because there is no lay participation, or I do. I am only slowly getting the idea that I am surrounded by people who are working night and day for things like the dialogue Mass. Imagine my dismay at the discrepancy between the party line and my own feelings in these matters.”

Later he’ll refer to himself as “anti-laical” but also “anticlerical.”

Along with letters Powers wrote, his daughter has included a handful of entries from his journal. Often they show a man in despair: “May 18, 1959: Out of gas — creatively . . . I feel absolutely powerless these days to prevent financial ruin. Ideas for stories don’t come.” And just eight days later: “Money, money, money — this is the answer to every question confronting me.”

Man of many interests

Scraps of Powers’ varied interest show up regularly. He’s fond of playing the horses, especially during the family’s several stints living in Ireland.

He follows the minor-league St. Paul Saints baseball team, keeps abreast of the gossip surrounding the design of the new Abbey Church at St. John’s, chimes in a number of idea for names of the new National Football League team being established in the Twin Cities in 1961, would have preferred the Democrats had nominated his friend Eugene McCarthy instead of John F. Kennedy to run in the 1960 presidential election.

“I did not, and do not, like Kennedy. That doesn’t mean he’s no better than Nixon. . . . Gene McCarthy nominated him . . . in the best speech of the convention. Too bad it isn’t Gene instead of Jack, if we have to have a Catholic. I understand Pope John’s already packing. I think we can use him, too.”

He refused military service during World War II, was imprisoned for it and released to do compulsory work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

A curmudgeon if there ever was one, he  was against the Legion of Decency (which rated movies for decades according to Catholic morals), wasn’t thrilled that fasting regulations were eased, agreed with author Evelyn Waugh that he was more of a short story writer than a novelist and presciently had this to say about Calvin Griffith, the tight-fisted owner of the then new Minnesota Twins baseball team: “I do not think Cal will ever put our welfare before his own.”

It’s such good writing you’ll be disappointed that the letters end with 1963. You’ll want to know the rest of the J.F. Powers story, but daughter Katherine explains well at the volume’s end why that won’t happen.

That epitaph one should read on one’s own…bz

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