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Saint John's Abbey Church

Saint John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Saint John's Abbey Church
    Book Description:

    In the 1950s the brethren at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota-the largest Benedictine abbey in the world-decided to expand their campus, including building a new church. From a who's who of architectural stars-such as Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Pietro Belluschi, Barry Byrne, and Eero Saarinen-the Benedictines chose a former member of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. In collaboration with the monks, this untested religious designer produced a work of modern sculptural concrete architecture that reenvisioned what a church could be and set a worldwide standard for midcentury religious design.

    Saint John's Abbey Churchdocuments the dialogue of the design process, as Breuer instructed the monks about architecture and they in turn guided him and his associates in the construction of a sacred space in the crucial years of liturgical reform. A reading of letters, drawings, and other archival materials shows how these conversations gave shape to design elements from the church's floor plan to the liturgical furnishings, art, and incomparable stained glass installed within it. The book offers a rare detailed view of how a patron and architect work together in a successful building campaign-one that, in this case, lasted for two decades and resulted in designs for twelve buildings, ten of which were completed.

    The post-World War II years were critical in the development of religious and architectural experiences in the United States-experiences that came together in the construction of Saint John's Abbey and University Church and that find their full expression in Victoria M. Young's account of the process. Using the liturgy of the mid-twentieth century as a cornerstone for understanding the architecture produced to support it, her book showcases the importance of modernism in the design of sacred space, and of Marcel Breuer's role in setting the standard.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4349-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xxi)

    On a warm day in late August 1961, eighteen hundred friends, donors, and professed religious men and women descended on Collegeville, Minnesota, for the dedication ceremony of the Abbey and University Church of Saint John the Baptist (Figure I.1).¹ With Abbot Baldwin Dworschak in a choir stall and architect Marcel Breuer seated in the front row of the balcony, Bishop Peter William Bartholome of St. Cloud, Minnesota, consecrated the building, officially recognizing eight years of collaboration between the Benedictines and Breuer and his architectural firm. The five-hour ritual transformed the building into a “House of God.” In the first portion...

  5. 1 BRICKS AND BROTHERS Establishing the Benedictines in Collegeville
    (pp. 1-27)

    During the Middle Ages, Western monasticism helped shape social, political, and artistic events, and the influence of a monastery was directly linked to the strength of its abbot, many of whom were confidants to kings and local lords. An abbot could craft his legacy not only through his pious works but also through the architectural projects he commissioned. Although monastic buildings served necessary functions of everyday life, their tall church steeples, medieval style, and fortress-like walls functioned as power statements, visual reminders of institutional importance. Abbot Baldwin Dworschak of Saint John’s, like other builders of the twentieth century, understood this...

  6. 2 THE TWELVE APOSTLES Selecting the Architect
    (pp. 29-65)

    Saint John’s abbey, university, and prep schools grew rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century. By midcentury, 306 brethren and 1,177 students were crowded into the cramped quarters of the nineteenth-century monastery at Saint John’s, including the Romanesque Revival church, which held only four hundred people (Figures 2.1 and 2.2).¹ Even before the brethren elected him abbot on December 28, 1950, Baldwin Dworschak had recognized that the largest Benedictine house in the world required a more suitable setting for worship and work. Within a year of his appointment, he created a building committee to look into improving the...

  7. 3 BUILDING THE SPIRITUAL AXIS Marcel Breuer and the Benedictines Design a Modern Catholic Church
    (pp. 67-107)

    When the invited architects visited Collegeville in the spring of 1953, they toured the campus, talked with the brethren, and spent time in meeting rooms in the nineteenth-century complex. The Benedictine community made it clear during the interview process that the selected architect’s primary focus was the comprehensive plan for the monastery and university, and not necessarily the design of buildings within it, as architects for those commissions would be selected later.¹ But with the hiring of Marcel Breuer and Associates to plan a new, modern campus, they knew that with this gifted design team they no longer had to...

  8. 4 A MINISTRY OF ART The Decorative Program of the Abbey Church
    (pp. 109-139)

    Breuer’s abbey church fulfilled the Benedictines’ vision for a modern vessel that would embrace the reformed liturgy. The bell banner delineated a line between the profane and sacred worlds. The building’s layout emphasized the role of the sacraments in worship along a spiritual axis from the baptistery to main altar. Its open plan allowed worshippers to focus on the altar and the visual culmination of monastic choir and abbot’s throne around it. Breuer’s design also accommodated a chapel where the lay brothers could say their prayers in English. Nevertheless, the concept was incomplete without liturgical art to support the ritualistic...

    (pp. 141-156)

    Father Cloud Meinberg informed Hamilton Smith shortly after the consecration of the abbey church: “Crowds continue to pour through the church—and no signs of stopping. The church is working out extremely well in use, for which of course, we are very happy.”¹ For many scholars and religious, this was the important element in its design; as Peter Hammond stated, “The task of the modern architect is not to design a building that looks like a church. It is to create a building that works as a place for liturgy.”² Profiles and reviews of the new building published in more...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 157-182)
    (pp. 183-200)
    (pp. 201-202)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 203-216)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)
  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)