St. John's Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota

When the new St. John's Abbey church of St. John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota was dedicated in 1961, it was dubbed by one reviewer "the most exciting architectural story since the building of the great medieval churches in Europe." The project was described by the monastery's PR team as a "100-year" plan to build a new abbey church in a true sense of living tradition, "which is not a crystallization of the form of a specific historical period." Meanwhile, the final result was the exact opposite, a modernist eccentricity stuck in a sixties time warp. The deductible idiom is rupture.

Architect's rendering of the abbey church

The Optimism of the Age

Due to extensive growth during the postwar years, by 1950 St. John's Abbey was talking seriously about building a new and larger chapel. The consensus of the day was to be forward-thinking, and mid-century modern was the rage.  The monks fell for a fad, sought out the famous Marcel Breuer, a renowned non-Catholic Brutalist architect who became a close collaborator with the Benedictines. This project was his first church. He was not Catholic. 

Over the years he went on to design several other buildings on campus, the first being the Abbey church with its iconic "bell banner." His style, resembling something akin to "Googie" architecture of the space age, was the undisguised use of basic materials such as poured concrete, and simple brick, glass, stone and wood. For two years he worked on plans with the Abbot, preparing a comprehensive design for not only the chapel, but the overall future development of the campus.  

On November 15, 1957 the monastic community came together  in an assembled Chapter to decide on actual construction details. The working plans and drawings had already been completed and submitted for approval. Everything was ready for work to begin. The aim was for the new structure to be put on the map - oversized and edgy in every way.  

The interior of the new abbey church - the tabernacle was originally fixed to the main altar

In those years the monks took excessive pride in the subjective phrase, "simple and dignified rather than ornate."  To critics the new church was too large, a monumental example of yet-to-be made mistakes and oversights, a grand structure embodying the overblown emotions, uncertainty and optimism of the age. In addition, it would be a colossal financial burden to build, not to mention heating it during the long Minnesota winters. 

The new look with its "bold new designs" - a reflection of the functionalist spirit of the age - was for many years the talk of the town. Having impressed architects all over the world, the new church was featured in dozens of American magazines and foreign journals that described it as a milestone in the evolution of Catholic architecture, the way of the future. After a tired deluge of modernist architecture and political ideology in recent years, today no one is asking for more. 

The implications of such a strange and bizarre structure were long-lasting. The monks seemingly enjoyed the fuss and attention to what they considered a very ordinary and fundamental problem - the challenge to build a modern church. Ten American magazines and nine foreign journals covered the story even before its construction, with widespread interest and enthusiasm springing from the design, what seemingly no one predicted would be a passing exigency of the time. St John's Abbey raised funds nationally to pay for the construction.   

In a fundraising brochure it was written, "The style of the building of any historical period is merely an expression of this tradition in time, and Benedictines have never believed that they should compromise living tradition by binding it to the historical forms of an earlier period." The monks were willing to take a chance, believing that "ancient religious ideas" should be "compatible with modern materials" as one editor phrased it. Ironically, the final result is bound to brutalist fantasia, a Cold War time-warp. The calculated shock has worn thin with continued association and the passing of years. 

Architect's rendering of the abbey church with honeycomb facade

The Liturgical Movement 

The project was seen as a triumph of the liturgical movement, which was in full swing in those years. In the immediate decades leading up to the Council, the monks of St. John's Abbey made themselves the genesis of the liturgical apostolate in America. Over the years certain voices from the Abbey gradually came to lead the way in a new development of ideas surrounding a general liturgical movement. 

Much of this positive force for intellectual study came from a monk of the Abbey, Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (1890-1938). A native of Assumption parish in St. Paul, Fr. Michel came from a wealthy family. He had received his Ph.D. in English from the Catholic University of America. As a student in Rome and Louvain (Leuven) he had discovered the budding liturgical movement in Europe. Although his first love was social ethics, he saw the need to establish a liturgical movement in the English-speaking world. Upon his return to the Abbey he founded, with the blessing of the Abbot, both the Liturgical Press and a liturgical review called Orate Fratres (later called Worship).  

By the time he died at age forty-eight, Fr. Michel was the leading exponent of the subject in North America. Although he was considered by some a dull and emotionless speaker and a prolific though poor writer, he was interested in everything, driven by ideas. In his short life he wrote books, pamphlets, articles and reviews. Today he is recognized as the "father" of the American liturgical movement.  

Because of this, St. John's had a national liturgical arts mouthpiece through its own publication, Orate Fratres. From its inception in 1929, this simple magazine helped posit St. John's as a leading voice of the growing movement. The early publications addressed such novel questions as congregational singing, the use of vernacular for Low Mass hymns, the question of the so-called "Dialogue Mass" and the return to the possibility of a free-standing altar or only one altar in a church. 

In retrospect, one of the failings of the movement was that it became constantly geared to the study of new developments in the field and the establishment of unending new trends. This is a problem because there are only so many ways to design a shoe box. The movement ran out of ideas and stalled out in a driving sprit of minimalism and revolution in the wake of the Council. 

This is in some ways reflected in the design atrophy of the new church. It is important to note the church design was revolutionary in its day, but not today. Perhaps its most revolutionary feature was that it was built without a Communion rail. Holy Communion was distributed from two stands, with the faithful standing (see below -- keep in mind, this was before the Council). These stands were called "communion tables," intended to take the place of the altar rail. Originally, seven of these were part of the design. This was an unfortunate break with tradition, in an age when tradition became a bad word.  

Image from the dedication Mass in 1961 with the faithful standing for Holy Communion

Below is an image from the dedication Mass in October 1961. The deconstruction of liturgical traditions can be seen on multiple levels, with the new style favoring a "theatre in the round" altar placed in the middle of the sanctuary. 

Image from the dedication Mass in 1961

In retrospect, it is interesting to note that gymnasium Masses began at St. John's Abbey in the 1940s, where they were held for "liturgical week" (see image below). 

1950s gym Mass at St. John's Abbey with theatre in the round central staging

Brutalist architecture was a fad that has since mercifully come and gone. It originally emerged in the 1950s with post-war reconstruction projects that were done in the UK and elsewhere. This style is characterized by minimalist construction with "undisguised" basic building materials. The style is a common sight in former Soviet block countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. It has been described by some critics as cold "airport architecture" and resembling something like a "single floor of basement." 

Architect's rendering of inside of abbey church

The long-term problem here is that true beauty always springs from the reality of things, from their being what they are in truth versus what they are simply meant to be. A beauty which is merely an external appearance without relation to the objective value of beauty itself can never be an enduring beauty. 

Maurice Lavanoux, a specialist in modernist church art trends of that time, described the design of the abbey church as "a milestone" in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country. The result, under the authority of Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, was the casting of ideals into forms which the monks thought would be valid for centuries to come, making use of "present-day" materials and the most modern building techniques. An important lesson was learned. Church architecture must take into account the very necessary qualification that subject matter and its delineation must be understood as appropriate for the edification of the faithful for all times (= classical), without succumbing to passing fads.   

Crypt chapel design for daily Low Mass of monks

The Previous Chapel

Fortunately the original Romanesque Revival chapel that was built in 1879 has survived (see images below). Today it is called the Great Hall. It originally had seating for 350 in the nave. The classic structure is in a charming Late Victorian style designed with Second Empire influences. Sadly the steeples were removed in 1960. The original 1930s maroflague technique paintings in the sanctuary have survived, with the Pantocrator, Christ the King, image in the apse. This was the work of an Austrian monk-artist, Br. Clement Frischauf, OSB (1869-1944). Today the former chapel is an empty student lounge. Sometimes musicians can be heard playing inside, due to its superior acoustics. Not a few people hope it will one day be restored as the abbey church.  Praying in this "deconsecrated" space and listening to Max Richter's On The Nature Of Daylight being played live by a student musician makes the soul long for this holy temple to be restored as the abbey church.  

Original abbey church as it appears today, without steeples

The abbey church with steeples

The steeples before they were torn down in 1960

Original abbey church cornerstone

Original abbey church paintings today, in rare Beuronese style 

Original abbey church interior today

Original abbey church interior, decorated in the 1920s in Byzantine-Romanesque style

Original abbey church altar, seen in 1955

Original abbey church altar with tabernacle and baldachin

Original abbey church interior then and today

Original abbey church interior reflected the best of the liturgical movement

The reason the monks originally decided to build a new chapel was because in the early 1950s the monastery population had became too large. In fact, it was the largest Benedictine Abbey in the world, with nearly 450 monks. The community had therefore outgrown the original abbey chapel and plans were unveiled for a much larger version that could also accommodate both the monks and their growing university population. By the late 1940s, the monastic community filled the choir stalls and the sanctuary apse, with an overflow into the nave of the church. 

The architect, Marcel Breier. is the elderly man on the right

Non-Catholic Artist

In 1954, the monks hired the Marcel Breuer, a modernist architect from Hungary, to spearhead the project. He was a man who lacked Christian faith. When he died in 1981 he chose to be buried in his backyard in Massachusetts. There are other prominent "modern" Catholic architects who could have been hired, such as Barry Byrne.  

The selection of a non-Catholic architect was unheard of. This lack of faith corresponds in an astounding way to today's subjective understanding of art. The rubrics in the liturgical books of that time naturally assumed the artists were Catholic. For example, with the blessing of a cross, which, with the exception of the blessing of vestments and vessels, is thought to be the oldest blessing relevant to art. 

"The preface for the solemn blessing of a new cross in the Roman Pontifical says that tota mentis devotio famulorum (Dei) religiosa crucem construxit (the total religious dedication of the mind of the servants of God constructed this cross). The words compactum, erectum and construxit have special meaning with respect to the prescription that the cross must be fashioned from solid material" (cf. Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform After Vatican II, p. 68). 

When the planning of the new church began, it was evident the structure would be large and modern. Beyond that, nothing was clear. The goal was to be forward-thinking, far ahead into the future. But there was one giant problem. The man spearheading the project did not share the Catholic Faith.  

In conclusion, an acquaintance of Fr. Virgil Michel and an eyewitness to the construction of the new chapel was Rev. Dr. Paul Marx, Ph.D., a native of nearby St. Michael who was ordained priest in the old chapel on June 15, 1947. He grew up as a child on a nearby farm, attending in his youth Vespers and large Masses in the chapel for special occasions. His doctoral dissertation he wrote on the life and work of Fr. Michel. He lived and experienced the predictable spiritual entropy and malaise that comes hand in hand with church architecture that is not sacred or artistic.

In his 1997 autobiography he opined, 

"The pioneer of the liturgical apostolate [Fr. Virgil Michel] would be appalled by all the craziness in liturgical practice going on today.  Although a thorough intellectual, he also had a practical sense. Were he living, he wold be a voice of sanity in the 'reform of the reform' of the liturgy that is going on. As early as 1920 he spoke and wrote about the vernacular in the liturgy; he didn't push it, because he perceived the times were not ready for it. He used to say that 'he is no leader who is too far ahead.'" (Faithful for Life, p. 32).

The front view of the new chapel
Front elevation of the new chapel

Side view of the new chapel


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