Cruising along Interstate 94 near St. Cloud, motorists often spot a giant slab of concrete jutting upward amid the Stearns County fields.
Some will veer off and discover a Walden-esque paradise known as St. John’s University and Abbey, a famed place among Catholics and architecture aficionados for the looming bell “banner” in front of its 46-year-old Abbey Church. After a peek inside the church and a stroll along nearby Lake Sagatagan, visitors get a surprise: Beds and meals await them in the new Abbey Guesthouse should they wish to stick around. Guests aren’t required to pay, in keeping with the Benedictine tradition of welcoming all. Rooms do have “suggested offerings” that help the monks with upkeep. Just don’t expect pay-per-view movies — this ain’t the Holiday Inn. The elegant three-story guesthouse, basically two overlapping “L” shapes wrapped around a courtyard, opened Dec. 1 with 30 rooms, replacing the humbler half-dozen guest rooms just off the old campus quadrangle.
This makes St. John’s more of a tourist draw, though most visitors are still those with business at the abbey, the university or nearby St. John’s Preparatory School. The guesthouse’s upper level is a bit hotel-like, intended for groups or visiting dignitaries, while the lower level is for quieter, more contemplative stays. All rooms have views of the Sag, along with simple yet elegant furniture made right on campus in a legendary woodworking shop.
As a St. John’s University alumnus, I’ve availed myself of the old and new guest quarters a number of times over the years and always found it a soothing experience. St. John’s may be the most relaxing place on Earth.
One time when my wife and I stayed in one of the old guest rooms, we laid our heads on our pillows and told each other, “Oh, we’ll just lie here for a sec before going to get some lunch.” Next thing we knew, it was morning.
I stayed at the new guesthouse twice in recent weeks and hated to depart. It reminded me of the end of a St. John’s school year, when I sat by the Sag with a sort of reverse homesickness because I didn’t want to leave for the summer. There’s something reviving about strolling down to the beach, just below the church and the guesthouse, and swimming out to the old diving platform for a few rays. Some prefer cabins; this is my place. But I’m willing to share. I’ve often urged my friends and colleagues to visit St. John’s for the day. Now, I’m thrilled I can suggest overnight or multinight stays, with more time on the campus for all it has to offer.
DROP, POP, STROLL, DINE, SLEEP
Go back inside the colossal abbey church, a Marcel Breuer masterpiece made of bare concrete, with no columns to hold the thing up; this structure still amazes me. (The smaller downstairs chapel is quite nice, too.)
Drop into the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library to learn about the St. John’s Bible, the first entirely handwritten and illustrated (or “illuminated”) Bible to be commissioned in modern times.
Pop over to the quadrangle’s Great Hall (the St. John’s church before Breuer worked his magic) and ask for a loaf of world-famous Johnnie Bread at the information desk. Be sure to ogle the quad’s inner bare-brick walls with wood trims.
If the weather is nice, walk around the Sag to the Stella Maris Chapel (also visible from the beach). This is an eye-popping hike in the autumn, one of many routes across 2,500 acres of woods. In the winter, you can cross-country ski around and over the Sag.
Or stroll in the opposite direction, across campus, until you reach a different section of the Sag near the cemetery and private monastic grounds. The wood benches on the lawn, overlooking the lake, are great for relaxing a while in warm weather. And check out the giant pendulum in the university’s new science center.
When it’s time to eat, you can either try the college refectory with its cafeteria-like meals or the guesthouse’s own dining room, with lunches and dinners prepared by a monk and several lay assistants. Vegetarians will like it here. Visitors also get free continental breakfasts.
The guesthouse is a natural light haven thanks to its big public-area windows and translucent hallway panels. It has conference and meeting rooms, a TV room, a meditation chapel, sitting areas, a public fireplace and — praise be! — a computer terminal in an upper-level hallway cubicle for checking e-mail and the Web.
The beds are basic (no Sleep Numbers, sorry) but comfortable. If you get cold, adjust the simple wall thermostat or grab extra blankets in the closet. The floors are wood, the ceilings bare concrete — more Marcel Breuer influences.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SHARING
Checking in and out of the guesthouse is a breeze. Upon arrival, you’re asked for a car license-plate number (but no ID). A keychain includes your room number, engraved on an elegant slab of wood, and an electronic key fob for getting in and out of the complex late at night.
When leaving, tuck your offering in the appropriate envelope, and drop it with your key into the metal box at one end of the reception desk. Yes, you can pay with a credit card. Occupancy has run at about 45 percent since the guesthouse opened, with most traffic on weekends, says Brother David Klingeman, a Benedictine staffer. Most guests pay what they’re asked, or close to it, meaning the facility is covering expenses (it’s not a profit-making operation).
Four or five monks help run the place, along with two or three student workers during the St. John’s school year. Father Bob Pierson, the complex “guestmaster,” says, “It’s very rewarding when we can provide a place for people to stay, join us in prayer, walk around our beautiful grounds and have a spiritual experience. That is what my life is about, and it’s nice to share that with others.”
IF YOU GO Directions: St. John’s University and Abbey is just west of St. Cloud on Interstate 94, past the town of St. Joseph. Take the St. John’s freeway exit, turn left, and you’ll see the Abbey Church’s bell banner directly ahead, up the hill. The Abbey Guesthouse is to the left of the church, with free parking directly across from the guesthouse’s entrance. Costs: Suggested nightly offerings are $60 for a single room, $80 for a double and $105 for a suite. Ask for special rates covering group visits and spiritual retreats. Continental breakfasts are free; dining rates of $15 to $17 cover lunches and dinners. Contact info: 320-363-2573 or firstname.lastname@example.org Guesthouse details: saintjohnsabbey.org/guesthouse — Julio Ojeda-Zapata
Let there be light: The St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse was cunningly designed to bathe its interior in natural light via translucent wall panels and geometric gaps in stone facades. Windows in public areas are extra-big, some with views of the courtyard. The smaller windows in the guest quarters have stunning views of the nearby woods and Lake Sagatagan. The guesthouse is replete with intimate spaces for reading, meeting, praying and meditating.
The St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse was designed to blend into its surroundings, including the architecturally distinctive St. John’s University campus, along with the adjoining woods and lake. It’s a place to be at peace, by yourself, or with spiritual help upon request.
Julio Ojeda-Zapata covers consumer technology. Reach him at email@example.com or 651- 228-5467.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
October 17, 2007