Rising from a flat wooded plain in central Minnesota, the sharply angled St. John’s Abbey bell banner commands awe. A towering portal from the outside world to the sacred interior of the abbey church, the imposing 112-foot-high poured-concrete slab beckons visitors to come in and behold the further wonders of contemporary design envisioned by Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer in the 1950s.
It’s one of the most breathtaking examples of modernism in Minnesota, and set the standard for a new era in religious architecture.
Renowned architect I.M. Pei once said that had the boldly shaped structures, composed primarily of thousands of tons of concrete, been built in a more populated area on either the East or West Coast, the abbey would be a world-famous example of mid-20th-century architecture.
But beyond the admiration of the monks, priests and students who pass through the environs daily, it isn’t as widely celebrated as it might be, given its significance as a tangible reflection of the Catholic liturgical reform movement of the mid-20th century.
Victoria M. Young hopes to change that with her recently published book, “Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space” (University of Minnesota Press, $35). Young, who chairs the Art History Department at the University of St. Thomas, where she also teaches modern architecture history, said that the committee of clerics formed to choose an architect wanted someone “who could help them create a church as special as what their medieval counterparts did with the first Gothic structure, the Abbey of Saint-Denis.”
In the 1950s, St. John’s Benedictines were becoming known as leaders of liturgical reform, intended to get congregations more involved in worship rituals, including converting masses from Latin to native languages and reworking altars so priests faced toward congregants rather than away from them.
“For the Benedictines, modernism was not a stylistic issue but rather a tectonic one,” Young said. “They were interested in the materials that could shape appropriate forms for a newly refined worship. Functionalism was key. They were very focused on the engineering showing through in the design, which actually follows the Gothic tradition, only using modern materials.”
While Breuer was not Catholic and had no previous liturgical design experience, he had been highly praised for his residential work, and was riding high on his much-buzzed-about plans for UNESCO headquarters in Paris, completed in 1955. (It’s no coincidence that the vaulting legs of St. John’s bell banner resemble those of the Eiffel Tower; Breuer passed it every day on his way to the UNESCO project.)
The monks were keen to choose someone with a big-picture perspective that encompassed the addition of several dormitories and other buildings throughout the 1960s. They also needed someone young enough — Breuer was then in his 50s, whereas some of the other top candidates were in their 70s — to see the lengthy project through.
In addition, Young said, they really liked Breuer’s collaborative approach: “I found a handwritten note describing how when he came to campus, he didn’t talk all day until the end, just listened. That was important to them — they didn’t want someone spouting his philosophy in their faces.”
The Benedictines and Breuer worked together to develop a “spiritual axis” that guided worshipers through the space, from the bell banner through to the baptistery, the nave and the altar — a figurative path to heaven. All stone used in the interior came from nearby Cold Spring, except the Vermont white marble used for the altar. Original sculptures and other artworks were commissioned, partly through the influence of Frank Kacmarcik, a liturgical consultant and art instructor at St. John’s, for 34 private-worship crypt chapels, each dedicated to a different saint.
The biggest controversy between architect and monks came near the end of the eight-year process: Who would design the massive stained-glass window for the 420 hexagons on the north wall?
Breuer preferred his former Bauhaus classmate, Josef Albers, who already had completed a small window for the abbot’s private chapel. The brethren ultimately chose St. John’s art teacher Bronislaw Bak, whose design centers on a symbolic white eye of God surrounded by red flames.
The Rev. Hilary Thimmesh, a former president emeritus of St. John’s who taught English for more than 50 years, was then in his 20s and one of the youngest members of the committee. His first reaction upon entering the finished space, obscured by scaffolding for three years, was “how vast it seemed.”
While the design had plenty of detractors, including a St. Cloud church leader who dubbed it an “ecclesiastical garage,” such a startling monument to modernism in the middle of Minnesota didn’t require the collective leap of faith we might imagine during such a culturally conformist era.
“There was a national mood in the 1950s, a sweeping, widespread optimism about the future,” Thimmesh said. “Nowadays it would never happen; it would be too daring. But it made sense then.”
Breuer had intended to paint the interior walls white and make the ceiling gilt, but when he saw the high quality of the concrete work, he decided against paint — about which there remain different points of view, Thimmesh said: “A few years ago, some folks were here for an organ recital. They looked at the unpainted walls and asked when we were going to finish the church.”