Marcel Breuer’s St John’s Abbey Church… perhaps the most important piece of modern religious architecture in the US

We first visited Saint John’s Abbey Church about 50 years ago, when my husband was an architecture student and we were living in Fargo, ND. The church was completed in 1961, and it was about 15 years old when we made a special trip to Collegeville, MN to see it.

It took my breath away.

When my cousin came to visit this summer from NYC we made a spontaneous stop on our way back from a family reunion in ND. They said it was a highlight of their trip.

Atlas Obscura describes it like this… “the church of Saint John’s Abbey bursts forth from the plains of central Minnesota like a concrete demon from a galaxy far, far away.”

To put it into context, the 112-foot bell banner is visible on the horizon from Interstate highway 94 from over a mile away. I.M. Pei once suggested that were it not hidden in rural Minnesota, the church at Saint John’s Abbey could be ranked among the 20th century’s greatest architectural achievements. Some critics have said it is the “most important piece of modern religious architecture in the United States.”

How did this brutalist masterpiece of poured concrete end up on a sleepy Midwestern college campus and abbey?

A Benedictine monastery was begun in Collegeville, MN with a small group of 5 in 1856, and it grew to the point where it was one of the largest Benedictine communities in the world in the 1950s. They no longer fit in their church building and the newly elected abbot of Saint John’s decided it was time to draw up a master plan for the whole community and its schools, with a significant church at its center that would be valid for centuries to come.

The Benedictine tradition is to think boldly, and they invited some of the best architects in the world to submit modern ideas with an emphasis on functionalism and honest use of materials. The goal was to make religious architecture once again significant in the United States.

They ultimately chose Bauhaus-trained Marcel Breuer (known for the creation of the Wassily chair), as their architect. They appreciated his inclination to rely on engineering principles in design, as well as his preference for employing basic principles in their undisguised and natural state. It is mind-boggling to think that everything at Saint John’s is made of concrete poured onsite by the monks themselves, supervised by Breuer’s architectural team.

“He struck us as being not only an outstanding architect, but also a simple, straightforward, sincere and rather humble person. This combined with his zeal for achieving the best possible results, recommended him in every way to the monastic community of Saint John’s.”

The stunning bell banner is the focus as you enter the campus, and it clearly draws you to the church. Instead of using a traditional steeple and bell tower, he created a 112-foot high banner from 2,500 tons of concrete and steel. This tremendous concrete slab is cantilevered on parabolic cross vaults, with two large ‘windows’ designed to allow light in to illuminate the stained glass window wall in the church.

The upper window frames a cross made from oak trees on site. The lower window holds 5 bells, originally the bells from the abbey’s old church. The unusual shape was inspired by historical architecture, including bell walls and towers in the Greek islands as well as by religious buildings in the Southwest. The side profile resembles the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where Breuer had been working on the UNESCO project.

The arched parabolic structure supporting the bell banner creates an arched passageway to the church entrance through the baptistry.

A tall bronze sculpture of Saint John the Baptist designed by artist Doris Caesar stands near the entrance door, pointing to the baptistry. He is the church namesake, and he reminds us that it is through baptism that we become members of the worshipping church.

The baptismal font, highlighted by natural light from above, was carved from a single slab of granite quarried from Cold Spring about 15 miles away. The font is in direct alignment with the altar, starting with the axis at the center of the bell banner through the entry doors to the center of the baptismal font and on to the altar and baldacchino.

The church was designed as a visual expression of gathering the whole family of St. John’s around a single altar… monks, students, parish, friends and guests.

It is hard to explain how it feels both massive and light at the same time, with massive folds of bare concrete suspended over walls of windows giving it a light and airy feel. They wisely fitted the organ pipes behind a simple red screen to not detract from the simple architectural elements. The organ was installed in 1961, the last large contract that Walter Holtkamp, Sr., completed before his death.

The concrete folds supposedly help the acoustics. We are going to a concert there this week… I look forward to hearing music in this space.

The raw concrete reminds me of the gothic cathedrals of Europe… with both light and stone. It also employs stained glass in a new way… the whole north wall is comprised of 430 hexagons of stained glass… the largest stained glass window in the United States at the time of its completion. It was designed by Bronislaw Bak, art professor at St John’s, and reflects the liturgical colors of the church year.

The church at Saint John’s Abbey may be the most unique building in all of Minnesota. When it was built it was called “the most exciting thing in church architecture since Michelangelo’s great dome.”

It still takes my breath away.

“The power of this place, its church, and the people who built it will endure for generations.”

Victoria M Young, SAINT JOHN’S ABBEY CHURCH: MARCEL BREUER AND THE CREATION OF A MODERN SACRED SPACE

Sharlene Hensrud, RE/MAX Results – shensrud@homesmsp.com

A wealth of information is available about the Abbey Church.  See A Brief History of Saint John’s Abbey and other sources listed in the Saint Johns Archives.

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I love what I do! Highly insightful, analytical and creative, there is nothing I love more than helping you find the right solution for your real estate transition. My mission is to serve my clients with honesty and integrity, exceeding their expectations in service and support… and to help others by donating a portion of every transaction to Habitat for Humanity.

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