Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A vacation journey: In omnibus glorificetur Deus

Saint John's University Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota

Last Tuesday, during the fourth day of our week-long midwest vacation visiting family, my wife and I decided to pause during our long, six-hour drive from Fargo, North Dakota to Albert Lea, Minnesota for a chance to rest and reflect. We detoured off Interstate 94 at exit 156 and drove our Chevy Malibu rental car a short distance to the campus of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was the first time I had seen the Saint John's campus in all the years I had been living in or visiting Minnesota, and the walk we shared over the next half an hour exploring the architecture and common spaces, including the Abbey Church and Great Hall, was most enjoyable. 

While there, at exactly 4 o'clock, we heard the five bells of the Abbey Church sound the afternoon hours -- they broke the quiet solitude felt across the campus -- which made our sense of mission on this cloudy afternoon all the more worthwhile. 

Saint Benedict / He led a monastic life
and became a patron saint of students.
The Abbey and the University are both rich in history. First, Saint John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the American-Cassinese Congregation, was established in 1856 following the arrival in the area of monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey of Labtrobe, Pennsylvania. They settled on the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Cloud. 

Their purpose, I learned, was to provide parishes, missions and schools for immigrant German Catholics. 

Saint John's Preparatory School, University and Seminary all began on November 10, 1857, when Cornelius Wittman, monk of Saint John's, began instructing five students -- yes, just five students -- in the classic liberal arts. 

The university is Minnesota's oldest continuous institution of higher learning. Early in the 1860s, the monks left Saint Cloud for the present-day site of Saint John's, in Collegeville, on land known as Indian Bush. Today, the campus covers approximately 2,700 acres of forest, lakes, prairies and wetlands.

The Abbey Church, the focal point of the campus, was designed by the modernist Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and built between 1958 and 1961. It is made of concrete and is faced on the outside with local granite. I learned that the board forms were oiled before the concrete was poured so that the finished interior surface would show the grain of wood.

The Bell Banner / The five bells are dedicated to:
 the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian
Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict.
Dominating the front of the Abbey Church is the Bell Banner, which is 112 feet high and 100 feet wide. It holds aloft the cross, which is the sign of Christian salvation "and boldly announces the Church." The cross is fabricated of white oak from local forests. The banner reflects the sunlight into the north fa├žade and holds the bells, which replaced the bells from the old Abbey Church in 1989. At that time, Abbot Jerome Theisen "baptized" the bells and dedicated them to: the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict. The largest of the bells weighs four tons and 30 pounds.

Visually, the Abbey Church expresses the entire family of Saint John's -- its monks, the students as well as staff, parish, friends and guests -- as they gather in worship around a single altar. It was consecrated more than 50  years ago in 1961. Now, four times each day, the monks and their guests gather in the Abbey Church for the celebration of Morning Prayer (7 a.m.), Midday Prayer (Noon), the Eucharist (5 p.m.) and Evening Prayer (7 p.m.). 

The Great Hall / Built in 1879, it served as the
original Abbey Church until 1961.
The Abbey Church replaced the Great Hall, a Romanesque structure that was built in 1879 and which served as the abbey church until 1961. Inside, the mural of Christ in the apse is a focal point of the Great Hall. It was painted by Clement Frischauf, a monk of Saint John's, during the last renovation in 1938. I learned that it is one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S. There is also stained glass windows, installed when the building was completed, which depict symbols from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as images of men and women Benedictine saints. 

The Great Hall is now used as a greeting and gathering place as well as a performance space for social, religious, educational and artistic functions.

In researching the history of Saint John's University, I learned that since 1856 the university has produced its own coarse-grained bread, known as "Johnnie Bread," and uses the proceeds to fund projects such as the Abbey Church. It is also the home of the famous Saint John's Bible. Each year, people come from around the world to visit the campus to see its pages on display in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.

Inside the Great Hall / The mural of Christ is not only a focal point, it is
also one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S.

As for Saint John's University, it is comprised of a liberal arts college for men, a graduate school of theology for men and women, and seminary for priesthood candidates. Academically, the college is in partnership with the College of Saint Benedict in nearby Saint Joseph, just four miles from the Saint John's campus. Students attend classes and activities together, and have access to the resources of both campuses.

Together, the two schools have a combined undergraduate enrollment of about 4,000 students. The joint faculty consists of about 350 professors, mostly full-time, permanent appointees.

Near the end of our walk on the Saint John's campus, we strode across the Quadrangle. On the west tower are the initials I.O.G.D. carved in yellow brick. They stand for an ancient Benedictine motto, taken from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict: In omnibus glorificetur Deus -- that God may be glorified in all things.

All photographs: © 2015 by Michael Dickens.

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