St. Agnes Convent Chapel Renovation by Noble Interiors, Inc.

The beautiful Saint Agnes Convent in St. Paul, Minnesota was built under the pastorship of Fr. John Gruden from 1951-1953.  Fr. Gruden was an author and educator who put great faith in Catholic education and the immense contribution of resident teaching sisters in a parish school.  The new convent was a first priority for the burgeoning parish as soon as conditions allowed for it after the Second World War.  Local expert builders were brought in to design it.  Construction began in earnest and was delayed due to a shortage of steel during the Korean War.  The beautiful new convent and chapel was finally completed and dedicated on October 25, 1953, the Feast of Christ the King.  This was 65 years after the first sisters had arrived at the parish.  By God's grace this beautiful convnet is still going strong today. 

Saint Agnes Church seen with the Cathedral of Saint Paul.

I have fond memories of this chapel from my youth.  I prayed here as a high school student in the 1990s.  The convent was constructed in a such a way that it contained the upstairs high school library, which had access to the choir loft of the chapel.  Certain students who were well behaved during study hall were given special privileges by the sister librarian, a School Sister of Notre Dame, to pray in the chapel.  I was also thrilled to serve Mass here more than once for visiting missionary priests.  One Mass was an Investiture of a new nun who was clothed in the habit in the Holy Year 2000.  Such warm memories.  Over the years many young women have lived here as well to discern a possible call to convent life.    

The chapel at the time of dedication.

The parish history reads: "Saint Agnes Convent has always been one of the largest communities of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the sight of the Sisters in their distinctive habit with its great veil was long familiar to the people of Frogtown" (History of the Church of Saint Agnes 1887-1987, p. 128).  This quote summarizes well the affection that the entire community had always had for the sisters.  The presence of young nuns is an outstanding contribution in any parish community.  Saint Agnes is a community with strong roots and a long history of dedicated sisters making a huge difference in the lives of the young.  

Saint Agnes Convent in 1953.

Interestingly, the Saint Agnes Convent has the unique distinction of probably being the only convent chapel in the nation that never installed a portable altar.  In other words, the original altar has always been used, without interruption, even during the tumultuous years of the 1960's and beyond.  This is called a versus Deum altar (where both priest and congregation face the tabernacle fixed permanently on the altar of sacrifice), a cherished and immemorial custom of both the Latin and Greek Churches that has been unfortunately overlooked and largely cast aside in recent decades due to a misinterpretation of Church documents.  

Bishop Byrne at dedication of Saint Agnes convent with detail of his crozier.

The convent, chapel and altar were solemnly blessed in 1953 by Bishop James J. Byre, the auxiliary to the Archbishop of St. Paul.  The bishop had grown up near St. Agnes on Sherburne Avenue where he was a member of the nearby Irish parish of St. Columba.  Bishop Byrne was fond of Saint Agnes and in fact he authored the commemorative booklet that was published to mark the occasion of the blessing of the convent, a celebration that drew priests and faithful from near and far.  When the convent was completed it housed some 50 nuns and was designed and built with the best materials and was intended to last for ages.  

The new convent in 1953.

In 1962 beautiful new stained glass windows arrived from Austria and were installed, seven in number that depict thirty-five symbols of the Blessed Eucharist.  They were designed by Herman Widinoser and were created in the famous studios of Tiroler Glasmalerei in Innsbruck.   This famous stained-glass window maker was founded in 1861 and has created over the decades countless stained glass windows for hundreds of churches and chapels across North America.  

Restoration work begins.

Over the years the School Sisters of Notre Dame dwindled in numbers and eventually the last sisters retired to the motherhouse in Mankato, Minnesota.  Fortunately for the parish community, the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist came to the rescue and were welcomed by the parish to staff the school and to populate once again the beautiful convent so full of memories.  Every convent that is faithful to its vocation is a happy place of joy and heavenly bliss and this is no exception.  The sisters are cherished and loved by the entire parish and school community.  Their presence helps transform the lives of countless youth and they provide a totally unique witness to Christ and His Bride the Church. 
Painting over the intricate stencil.

When the new sisters arrived in August 2018 it was obvious the chapel was in need of some work, including a fresh coat of paint.  The chapel renovation and redesign of the convnet was thankfully enriched through the good graces of Jim Noble, KM, a local Catholic leader and dedicated Knight of Malta.  He is also principal of Noble Interior Design and Decoration, a prestigious design firm based in Minneapolis.  Jim and his team brought to the table their years of expertise and good taste.  All for the greater glory of God, they set to work and transformed the faded altar dossal and aged chapel walls into something great once again.   

Image from dedication booklet of Saint Agnes Convent.

The goal was to lighten and brighten the chapel at the direction of the new superior, Mother Mary Samuel.  Jim designed the traditional damask pattern for the back of the altar dossal, and then made it work for this specific application in neutral shades to give detail and interest.  The neutral colors allow for the liturgical colors to shine throughout the year without visual conflict.  He also personally designed the faux gold leaf to highlight certain design elements of the altar and canopy of the dossal.  In the end the entire chapel was carefully painted and new flooring was installed with new lighting; all on a budget with creativity maximized.       

Theologically, the chapel is the center of every convent.  The sisters meet here for the official worship of the Church: Holy Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office.  All the refreshing new beauty of this beautiful chapel serves an important purpose.  It contributes to a revival of contemplative prayer which is the natural conclusion of genuine and intelligent worship and without which no exterior action of nuns or the Christian life can be fruitful.  

The gorgeous stencil pattern chosen by Jim is classical -- with the ornamental design of the acanthus foliage, a symbolic design element of ancient Rome and Greece that is representative of the symmetry and the beauty of nature, order, and the divine life.  

Detail of the stencil work.

The completed version has given new life to the Saint Agnes Convent.  God bless Jim and his team as well as the sisters who live here to experience such a joy and privilege of calling this blessed place their home.  Dear sisters, you are not alone.  You walk in the footsteps of giants.  Many thanks to you all, to the wonderful pastor Fr. Mark Moriarty and to Jim Noble of Noble Interiors, Inc. for such a successful renovation that has made a fine contribution to the liturgical arts.  

The chapel as it appears today.

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