Saint John’s Abbey Church in Minnesota

The Saint John’s Abbey Church in Minnesota is one of the most significant pieces of religious architecture in the United States.

Completed in 1961, Saint John’s Abbey Church was designed by the renowned Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer. (photo by Bob Sessions)

After you’ve seen The Saint John’s Bible, tour the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church. Even better, attend one of its services.

The Abbey Church is a strikingly modern building designed by Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-educated architect Marcel Breuer. From 1955-75, Breuer created nearly a dozen buildings on the Saint John’s campus. Of these, the church is his signature landmark, a dramatic structure with a trapezoid-shaped, 110-foot bell tower that dominates the campus.

Given the building’s size, I was surprised to step into its relatively small entrance. The dimly lit space, which is dominated by a baptistery filled with water and a seven-foot-tall, modernist sculpture of John the Baptist, seemed out of keeping with the mammoth structure that seats 2,000 in its nave, choir stalls and balcony.

“This building is designed as a metaphor for the spiritual journey,” explained Saint John’s Bible director Tim Ternes, who’d joined me for the mid-day prayer service. “We begin in darkness, and then proceed into the openness and light of the church itself.”

The entrance into the Saint John’s Abbey is meant to be symbolic of a spiritual journey from darkness into light. (photo by Bob Sessions)

A few more steps brought us into a soaring interior space with a centrally located altar bordered by monastic choir stalls on either side. Tim explained that when it opened in 1961, the church’s cast and steel-reinforced concrete construction was as much of a technological innovation as its design.

Without interior supports and devoid of statues, the church has an austere beauty that is enlivened by an immense stained-glass window that fills almost one entire wall. The abstract design, which is set in a honeycomb-shaped lattice of concrete, sends multi-colored reflections to the floor below.

The design of the immense stained glass window in Saint John’s Abbey reflects the colors of the liturgical year. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Seeing my delighted expression, Tim said that if the building was in a major city instead of rural Minnesota, it would be regarded as a must-see destination. “The abbey church is considered one of the most significant pieces of religious architecture in the U.S,” he said.

Saint John’s Abbey Church has a spare, austere beauty. (photo by Bob Sessions)

We took our seats in the choir stalls, joining about fifty worshippers who were a mix of monks and laypeople. Despite the modernity of the church’s architecture, the service that followed was the same blend of prayers and chanted psalms that have punctuated the lives of Benedictine life for fifteen centuries. If I closed my eyes, I could have been in a medieval European abbey.

I thought of how Christian monasteries are meant to serve as leaven for both the Church and the larger society, just as a few grains of yeast can transform flour, water, and salt into a loaf of bread. During the Middle Ages, monks and nuns helped preserve culture and learning for the larger world, and I could see how Saint John’s continues that mission today. Its belief that the arts can glorify God, and that people’s souls need beauty to flower, make this a spiritual oasis whose influence spreads far beyond the rural Midwest.

To attend a service at the abbey, see the Daily Liturgy Schedule for Saint John’s Abbey.

Individual and group retreats are offered at the Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse

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