Saint John’s Abbey & University, Collegeville, Minnesota
St. John’s University: the Johnnies. Academics. Football. These are things that typically come to mind when one thinks of this wonderful college set in the picturesque middle-of-Minnesota countryside. In this blog, I hope to expand your horizons of what this spectacular campus has to offer for the traveler as well!
Continuing on our quest to explore great spots for any traveler to Minnesota, this Travel Date is what travel guide books call “Farther Afield.” Typically a short road trip outside of a major destination, cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Collegeville fits. Just a little over 1 hour northwest of the Twin Cities via a major freeway, and a few minutes from St. Cloud, it is a great Day Trip. Allow about 2-3 hours on campus.
Drivers on I-94 on their way north to the Alexandria lake country or the Fargo/Moorhead area will see the turn off sign to “Collegeville” – and probably will just drive by. I encourage both visitors (and locals) to stop, take a couple of hours and enjoy this magnificent center of art, architecture, culture.
A Visit to St. John’s
I discovered that our Travel Date to St. John’s focused on Six Bs! Thanks for indulging me in this bit of literary fun in the joy of alliteration!
Bible, Bells, Buildings, Bowls, Bread & Benedict!
St. John’s University, founded in 1857, is the oldest Minnesota institution of higher education that has enjoyed uninterrupted existence.
Founded on the Benedictine philosophy, the campus includes a Preparatory School, a 4-year university, a Roman Catholic seminary and abbey, and partners with nearby College of St. Benedict (St. Joseph, MN). Even if your main reason for a trip to the site is the college admissions department, I encourage you to take time to explore and embrace some of its great attributes!
Besides being a top-ranked university on many levels, the campus is filled with natural beauty. It is set amid nearly 3,000 acres of varied terrain: wetlands, several lakes, an oak savanna, a restored prairie, and hiking trails that wind through an extensive pine and hardwood forest. There are great trails for hiking. The landscape fosters the Benedictine traditions of land stewardship, education and environmental respect and inspires spiritual and artistic reflection.
St. John’s holds a special place in my heart and life.
As a young college student in the nearby state college in St. Cloud, I recall the Johnnies who come into town to join us at the local college hang-outs; several became dear, lifelong friends. I have warm memories of attending St. John’s football games played amidst the glorious colors adorning the campus’s autumn trees.
Deep philosophical and spiritual discussions during countless walks on its wandering wetland and lakeside trails still impact my life today.
As an adult student of the world, I have come to also appreciate the depth and breadth of its world-renowned art, architecture and culture held within this campus.
St. John’s offers as much as any site I’ve visited in Europe! And it is right in my backyard!
Our recent Travel Date to St. John’s University focused on its magnificent art and culture. We were impressed by the ways in which the Benedictine traditions of land stewardship, education and environmental respect and inspires spiritual and artistic reflection are played out today. This was evident even in the clay and glazes used in in St. John Pottery and the ingredients in the legendary St. John’s Bread.
A sculpture of St. Benedict (photo on left) was sculpted by Steven Lemke, graces an open campus courtyard. I felt a special affinity with this sculpture because we got to know Steven, thanks to his enlightening, in-depth, private tour of the pottery studio. More on this tour in the St. John’s Pottery section below.
Bell Banner & Church Architecture
“...the most important piece of modern religious architecture in the United States.”
Architect: Marcel Breuer
Bauhaus-style, world renowned architect, Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), was selected to design the project. The Self-Guided Tour brochure, conveniently available at the back of the church, described it well:
“The marriage of 1500 year old Benedictine monasticism to a school or architecture and design that existed for only 14 years in Germany (1919-33), resulted in what some critics have said is the most important piece of modern religious architecture in the United States.”
Sources: Self-Guided Tour brochure and other printed literature available on campus, 27 July 2021
I love the sound of bronze church bells pealing through the air. As we began our walk from the parking lot to the bell banner, its bells began to toll! The welcoming sound set the tone for our visit, one of welcoming warmth and presence.
The lower window of the bell banner houses five bronze bells. The largest bell weighs 8,030 pounds.
The bells are HUGE! Perspective on their size can be appreciated as seen here in a SJU historical photograph of a man working on them!
As we entered the campus, the bell banner rose high above the tree tops heralding its presence.
In his stunning creation, Breuer combined design elements of early mission churches in southwest United States with the Greek tradition of bells housed in niches in the walls of the church, instead of using traditional steeple and bell tower.
Behind the bold honeycomb facade is the stained glass window described below.
This place of worship is clearly a special place, set aside for the gathering of the community of believers and the worship of God, in line with the philosophy of the rest of the campus.
The bell banner (aka bell tower) stands 112 feet high and was constructed from 2,500 tons of concrete and steel. The tremendous concrete slab, cantilevered on parabolic cross vaults, is pierced by two large “windows.”
The upper window frames a laminated wood cross made from St. John’s oak. The lower window houses the five bronze bells.
A circular staircase winds up to the base of the bells, adding to its stunning aesthetic design and intrigue!
Saint John’s Abbey & University Church
The church is interestingly both stark – and warmly welcoming. It is wide, expansive, open and all-embracing. The absence of columns, statues, and lighting fixtures places the simple altar and stunning baldacchino as the focal point.
It was designed as a visual expression of the whole family of St. John’s – gathered around a single altar – to participate in the worship of God: monks, students, parish, friends, and guests.
SJU Abbey & Church. P.C. Cher B 27 June 2021; Sources: Self-Guided Tour brochure and other printed literature available on campus, 27 July 2021
Designed by SJU art teacher, Bronislaw Bak, it suggests the splendor of the liturgical seasons of the Church year.
Stained Glass Window
The stained glass window, comprised of 430 hexagons, covers the entire north wall of the church. At the time of its completion it was the largest stained glass window in the U.S.A.
The wide banks of pews, soaring folds of walls, provides an all embracing and expansive atmosphere.
We entered the church through the stunningly beautiful baptistery. It is symbolic of how one enters the Church through baptism. Intimate in scale, its walls are dark but warm on the edges with a sunken baptismal fount full of light from above, moving water, and living plants. It immediately set a tone of reverence for me as we moved into the expanse of the sanctuary.
Sources: printed literature available on campus, 27 July 2021
St. John the Baptist
A large sculpture of John the Baptist, in his role in preparing the way for the Messiah through his act of baptizing Jesus, points to the baptistery.
Done by New York artist, Doris Caesar, it is one of many beautiful sculptures at St. John’s.
Saint John’s Bible
“Experience the Word Come to Life.“
Medieval Times – aka: the Middle Ages – hold a strong fascination for us. It conjures up images such as Castles, Knights of the Round Table, Court Ladies in fancy garments, King Arthur and Merlin, Robin Hood, Jousting matches with majestic horses in beautiful attire. . . the Renaissance Fair (Oh…wait…it should more aptly be called “Medieval Fair” – the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages – and is far different!)
We often think of the Middle Ages – the period in the middle, between Ancient and Modern eras- as the Dark Ages. This is because much of the learning of the great ancient cultures Greece, Rome and Egypt, went “dark” for nearly 1000 years.
I have always shared with my art history students that I believe the saviors of western civilization during the middle ages were the monks in the monasteries. They kept culture and literacy alive while the warring world was falling apart outside their thick monastic walls. One of the ways this was accomplished was by painstakingly copying the Bible and other classic literature onto manuscripts by hand, embellishing them with beautiful calligraphy and illustrations.
One of the medieval illuminated manuscripts on display in the St. John’s Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, on campus. P.C. Cher B 27 July 2021
The art of medieval illuminated manuscripts has always fascinated me. Visiting displays in European monasteries deepened my interest and admiration. I was excited when I learned that St. John’s was embarking on the quest to create an illuminated, handwritten Bible using materials as close to the original as possible.
Having seen pages of this Bible exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, it was a thrill to be able to see so many of them at once – and in their home setting!
The St. John’s Bible is the first illuminated, handwritten Bible of monumental size to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in 500 years. All 73 books of the Old and New Testaments are presented in 7 volumes of approximately 1,150 pages. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation was used.
The creation of The Saint John’s Bible was done in a scriptorium in Wales. The theological work was done at St. John’s University in Minnesota.
Planning and work began in 1995. The first words were penned on 08 March 2000. The final word was written on 09 May 2011. The pages are complete, but Bible remains unbound at this time.
(saintjohnsbible.org and printed literature available on campus, 27 July 2021)
Saint John’s Bible Gallery
The St. John’s Bible Gallery is located on the lower level of the Alcuin Library, a short walk across from and north of the front of the Bell Banner. The gallery features 28 original folios showcasing works from all 7 volumes of the Bible.
As I entered the dimly lit gallery, the goal and hope of the monastic and campus community was felt: that the “Scriptures will open up to us – and that our journey to see the Bible will become a journey toward God.” We were reminded of Benedict’s Rule which instructs the reader to “listen…with the ear of your heart.”
Open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Monday-Friday, there is no admission charge and no reservations are needed for a self-guided tour. Guided tours for groups of 10+ are available with reservation (details on website).
Sources: printed literature available on campus, 27 July 2021
Each book, each page, created in the unique style of its own artist, portrayed the artist’s interpretation of the message and events in that passage of Scripture.
The Saint John’s Pottery
Master Potter & Artist-in-Residence
My surprise – and favorite part – of the day was meeting and visiting with Richard Bresnahan, Master Potter, Artist-in-Residence, and founder of The Saint John’s Pottery! For over 40 years, he has directed The Saint John’s Pottery in unique collaboration with St. John’s University. His passion for clay, vision for SJU pottery program, and down-to-earth (pun intended!) personality were a highlight of our visit.
Watching documentaries on his life and work prior to our visit helped me understand the breadth of his work and legacy. For a full list of documentaries and publications, visit the St. John’s website at saint-johns-pottery.org
We walked into the Pottery Studio at the far west side of the campus, hoping to find it open since it has been closed during the pandemic. It was open! We were greeted with smiles and generous hospitality.
Visitors to the studio are welcome to take part in educational tours, browse the sale gallery, and purchase functional pottery suitable for everyday use. We enjoyed all three , including the purchase of a fine ceramic bottle vase fired in the Japanese Tanegashina method; we learned about the three different types of firing in the Johanna Kiln as well!
Since its inception in 1979, and true to the Benedictine philosophy, The Saint John’s Pottery has produced pottery and sculpture using local and natural materials.
A highlight of our visit was the telling of the unbelievable story that Richard and Steven shared of how clay was endowed to last the SJU studio for over 300 years! Local clay, marked for road construction, became available for the taking if Bresnahan could get it moved from the construction site to SJU; he had just a few days! Trucks and labor came forth and the herculean task was accomplished! Discarded material from a local granite quarry was made available in much the same way.
Ancient Pacific Rim methods of pottery are combined with available local resources and attention to process.
Once again, in the Benedictine philosophy, the studio makes and uses glazes from local, natural, and food-safe materials such as ashes from flax, navy bean, soy bean straw, sunflower hulls, wood and granite dust! This makes all dishes safe to eat and drink from, and dishwasher safe.
The studio is housed beneath St. Joseph Hall. In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, we were invited to enjoy a warm cup of tea around the irori tea table, modeled in the style of a traditional hearth used for providing guests with warmth, respite and conversation. Unfortunately, time did not permit us this luxury.
Just down the road is the Johanna Kiln, the largest wood-fired kiln of its kind in North America. Designed and operated by Bresnahan, it was named in honor of his mentor and SJU colleague, art historian Sister Johanna Becker, OSB.
Saint John’s Bread
We bought 2 loaves and broke off a chunk to “sample” before we headed home! It lives up to its hype of having a “unique flavor and hearty texture!”
Sources: printed literature provided on campus and the back side of loaf of bread purchased on campus, 27 July 2021
“The Loaf that became a Legend”
One of the things I was looking forward to do was to purchase a loaf (or two!) of this scrumptious Johnnie bread! It was available at a variety of places on campus. Check with anyone on campus when you arrive and they can direct you.
The recipe for Saint John’s Bread was brought to Minnesota by pioneering monks from Bavaria more than 150 years ago! Adapted slightly to use readily available ingredients, the bread continues to be made from locally milled flour. (Again, Benedictine model). Student bakers are responsible for continuing the tradition.
Two pound loaves (or bread mix to bake your own), were $6.00/loaf, well worth the cost since not only it is delicious, but proceeds from the sale of the bread are used to support a variety of worthwhile purposes. At one time this included the construction of the St. John’s Abbey Church. Currently, royalties educate needy students at the University and Preparatory School
The tradition of sharing bread with visitors is a staple of Saint John’s Benedictine hospitality. The bread’s unique flavor and hearty texture has played a central role in the diet of monks, students and guests.
Culinary Stop: Ice Cream
A Culinary Stop is a necessary part of any Travel Date! After all, an important part of travel is sampling the local cuisine!
Ice cream/gelato stops are always in our radar on our travel itineraries. We were delighted when we spotted an ice cream shop on the main street of the nearby small town of St. Joseph (St. Joe to locals), just a few minutes away fro St. John’s via (I-94 east.
The Jupiter Moon was a bright, fun ice cream shop with cheerful, helpful staff that willingly consented to taking our photo. The ice cream was delicious and the servings were generous. Although available, we wisely chose to forego our preference for our usual outdoor seating due to the 94 degree outdoor temperature and enjoy the A/C.
St. Joseph offered a variety of good dining options both for the college crowd and locals and recommended by the St. John’s people we asked. We also took the opportunity to do a drive-thru of the College of St. Benedict’s campus, set in the middle of the town.
- Self-guided tour coordinated by Cher B
- Saint John’s Abbey and University Church Self-Guided Tour Pamphlet
- The Saint John’s Bible, Experience the Word Come to Life, brochure
- The Saint John’s Pottery brochure