You notice the change even before taking the exit to St. John's University, just west of St. Cloud. The farms and fields of central Minnesota suddenly transform into a hilly hardwood forest along I-94. A footbridge over the freeway is a link to the surrounding forest, foreshadowing the nature that abounds on the St. John's campus.
Most college campuses are handsome havens of green space and large trees in the midst of the halls of academe. At St. John's, the campus and Benedictine Abbey are part of nature, not the other way around.
As soon as you turn left (south) from the exit, the splendors of the university's natural environment unfurl in front of the car. St. John's encompasses about 2,400 acres of the finest forest, lakes, prairie and wetlands in central Minnesota. Yet the distinctive, internationally famous bell tower looms on the horizon, a symbolic link of the natural and spiritual worlds joined together here.
The land of St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville was dedicated as a natural arboretum in 1997. Park the car and take a close look. The Boardwalk Trail Loop is a 1.5-mile easy hike that is an engaging outdoor learning lab for area schools. In the space of a 50-minute hike, you'll traverse prairie, wetlands, woodlands and oak savanna.
The Chapel Trail, near the bell tower at the south end of the campus, is a three-mile round trip leading to the Stella Maris Chapel on the banks of pristine Lake Sagatagan, the largest of the seven lakes on St. John's land. The scenic marriage of the lake, chapel and forest are particularly stiking in autumn.
Wherever you are at St. John's, the Abbey Church and bell tower command attention. The church and tower are an internationally recognized masterpiece of Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born architect who designed many of the buildings on campus. Though he also designed buildings around the world, such as the UNESCO building in Paris, much of his finest work is right there at St. John's.
The vertically cantilevered, exposed-concrete bell tower (or "bell banner") initially shocked the university building committee with its aggressively modern expression. At 112 feet high and 100 feet across, the bell banner holds aloft the giant cross (crafted of white oak from St. John's forests) and five bells.
Inside, the Abbey Church nave is 225 feet long, 180 feet wide and 65 feet tall. It seats 1,450, including the choir stalls. The stained glass window that forms the north facade of the building was designed by former St. John's art professor Bronislaw Bak. The Benedictine monks, faculty, students and other volunteers constructed and installed the magnificent window when the church was built in 1961.
A visit to Collegeville should also include a tour of the College of Saint Benedict in nearby St. Joseph. While St. John's is a liberal arts college for men, St. Ben's is a Catholic liberal arts women's college. The two schools, just four miles apart, are partner universities, sharing curriculum and faculty.
St. Ben's has its own share of notable architecture, including the renowned Benedicta Arts Center. Since Collegeville doesn't have any restaurants, try the new Gorecki Dining Center on St. Ben's campus, open to the public. Personal favorites in town include the Local Blend Coffee Shop and Bo Diddley's Deli.
After sampling the local fare, grab your map and sample the paved county roads surrounding St. Joseph and Collegeville. The countryside is hilly, woodsy and scenic, and you're never too far from the freeway.