COLLEGEVILLE — It’s a house of worship that belongs to the ages. The monks of St. John’s Abbey will celebrate on Sunday the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey and university church in Collegeville.
“It’s iconic for the campus and for St. John’s; it really is — the bell banner especially — the symbol for St. John’s,” Abbot John Klassen said of the church.
On Sunday, there will be a Eucharist liturgy at the church with Klassen, a concert by the Westminster Cathedral Choir of London and a solemn evening prayer.
The Rev. Hilary Thimmesh was on the committee that planned the church’s construction and Liturgical Press recently published his memoir about the regional landmark.
Thimmesh’s notes from the committee’s meetings almost half a century ago form the basis of his new book “Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir.”
“The college was growing after the Second World War,” Thimmesh said of the need for a new church, when there were not enough choir stalls and pews for the monks or the students who attended daily Mass.
Breuer was the lead designer and architect of the church project. The Hungarian’s design for the church was chosen because of his “unassuming, attentive style,” according to the book “Saint John’s at 150.”
“He didn’t have a big architectural record at that point,” Thimmesh said of Breuer, who at the time was better known for designing private residences and furniture. “But his manner was just very reassuring.”
The “serious,” “modest” and “courteous” Breuer met regularly with the committee from 1956 until the church’s dedication in 1961 to plan and construct the church, which includes a 112-foot-high banner.
“There was a drive to do something architecturally significant,” Thimmesh said at the time of the release of his 136-page paperback about the church. “He was very interested in listening to what we thought we needed.”
Thimmesh became a monk of St. John’s Abbey in 1947 and was ordained as a priest in 1954.
“I don’t actually think we talked much about what it ought to look like, when we initially spoke to him,” Thimmesh said. “He encouraged us to tell him what kinds of things are we going to do in the building.”
Max Berger is a St. John’s University student from Chile who said he was impressed by Breuer’s church.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Berger, a business major who comes from a Catholic family but is not a practicing Catholic.
Berger first visited the church out of curiosity but has since become better acquainted with it in his job as a campus information desk attendant.
“We get several calls asking about Mass,” said Berger, a third-year student.
“I think to many students — and even for me, who is not particularly religious — the church is an inspiring, like, monument.”
The church’s colored glass was designed by Bronislaw Bak, a former St. John’s art professor, and installed by the monks, faculty members, students and other volunteers, according to Bill Morgan, a local historian.
“We were concerned about simplicity … about a kind of honest use of materials. We weren’t going for fancy decorations or things of that sort,” Thimmesh said.
The cavernous church is built almost entirely of concrete and reinforced steel with a honeycomb-like array of stained glass windows and a massive concrete bell banner out front.
“I think the design of the banner, itself, today would still be striking,” Klassen said.
Renowned architect I.M. Pei once said the Collegeville church would be world famous if it had been built in New York City instead of the north woods of Minnesota.
“What a gift that church is that I, as a monk of this monastery, am truly grateful for,” said Klassen, who was elected the 10th abbot of St. John’s Abbey.
Klassen attended high school, college and seminary on the Collegeville campus.
“No monastery would have built that church without the university there to fill it. But no university would ever build a church like that by itself because it wouldn’t have the theological and liturgical resources to actually have a vision for a church like that,” he said.
The cost to construct and furnish the church, and the chapter house on the east side of the church, was about $2.75 million, according to Thimmesh.
“It wears very well and what amazes me is that it’s 50 years old because it doesn’t look 50 years old,” Thimmesh said of the church’s timeless design.
Klassen became a Benedictine monk of the Abbey in 1972 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1977.
“I think the church, by pulling the altar into the center … architecturally there’s no doubt about what’s central to being a Catholic: It’s the Eucharist and the altar, itself, and what that means,” he said.
Brother Frank Kacmarcik of St. John’s Abbey was an artistic consultant to the famous German architect Breuer on the design and construction of the church.
“The strong alignment, for example, between the baptistery and the altar made it very, very clear that the way we come into the church is through the sacrament of baptism,” Klassen said.
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St. John’s Abbey set to celebrate 50 years
St. Cloud Times
October 20, 2011