St. John’s Abbey Breuer Church at 50

The St. John’s Abbey and University Church, designed by master Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, has turned 50. It was consecrated in 1961, and the feast of dedication was this past Sunday.

As a lead-up, a panel was held a few weeks ago with Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, and Bill Franklin, Episcopal bishop of western New York and former theology professor at St. John’s. Do listen to it.

Fr. Hilary Thimmesch OSB, former president of St. John’s University and youngest member of the planning committee back in 1961, has written a delightful account of how we got the abbey church, Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir. LitPress says this about the new book:

The junior member of the twelve-monk planning committee recounts in warm and frequently humorous detail how its members related to the Hungarian-born Bauhaus-trained architect who had no background in church architecture but shared their belief in the enduring quality of simple materials sympathetically used. How the strong architect-client relationship survived the strain of disagreement at a critical moment in completion of the church is the narrative high point.

The liturgy began with the chant introit Terribilis est locus iste (I think even “formal equivalence” permits us to call the place “awesome” rather than “terrible”). The opening hymn from Herman Stuempfle was perfect for the occasion:

For builders bold whose vision pure
Saw more than brick or stone,
Who laid in hope foundations sure
With Christ the corner stone;
For those who honored your commands
And trusted your strong Word,
Who offered faithful hearts and hands,
We give you thanks, O Lord.

I’m sure the development office appreciated the fourth stanza: “We come, O Lord, inheritors, / From those whose work is done. / Lord make us now contributors…” That’s university president Fr. Bob Koopmann OSB playing the Holtkamp pipe organ.

The Gloria from Mass VIII, Missa de Angelis, had been sung by the congregation in 1961 at the consecration. We did it again, but now giving the congregation a refrain and adding a bit of medieval organum. Do you know the new Missa ad Gentes by J. Michael Joncas from GIA? The Sanctus has alternation between schola (in Latin) and congregation (in English), with the congregation repeating the just-sung melody. I like Michael’s setting a lot – it’s fresh, at once light and serious, festive but not pompous. It’s our setting of choice for big days.

Master choral conductor Axel Theimer from the university music department composed a new anthem for the Men’s Chorus, Sanctum et terribile nomen eius. Here’ the text:

Sanctum et terribile nomen eius.
Initium sapientiæ timor Domini.
Holy and awesome is his name.
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord.

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inæstimabile sacramentum.
Locus iste irreprehensibilis est.
This place was made by God,
an unfathomable mystery.
This place is without blemish.

Later in the day, Westminster Cathedral Choir from London under the direction of Martin Baker gave a stunning concert in the abbey church. This was the inaugural event of the Institute for Sacred Music at St. John’s.

Mark your calendars: October 2061, abbey church centennial celebration.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this account of the event and a reminder of the courage and imagination that brought about the marvelous Abbey Church. I worked for 13 years in a building inspired in some aspects by Breuer (though he came second in the competition for the design!) and know that concrete can create a hospitable shelter for things to happen in. And Herman Stuempfle always knew how to sneak points of a sermon into beautiful words. I give thanks for him too.

  2. Beautiful!

    I agree with Thomas . . . concrete can be warm and inviting. I think of the beautiful cathedrals in San Francisco and Liverpool where I have visited.

    My hope is to some day visit the beautiful Abbey Church!

  3. “Do you know the new Missa ad Gentes by J. Michael Joncas ”
    Yes! I love it also, and it is on my short list for NEXT year!

  4. Thanks, Fr. Anthony, for posting this description of the liturgy–I was with you all in spirit and sorry not to be there in person. This helped, and you’ve inspired me to go start Fr. Hilary’s book!

  5. Few moments of liturgical prayer have been as meaningful to me as have been my past experiences of Morning Prayer, Eucharist and Evening Prayer at St. John’s Abbey Church during summers at SJU. Prayerful congratulations to the entire community. Ad multos annos!

  6. I have fond memories of co-leading the closing hymn festival of the 2004 conference of the Hymn Society in the US and Canada in Breuer church. What a wonderful space!

    It sounds as if you had a wonderful celebration. How ecumenical of St. John’s to use an opening hymn from the Lutheran pen of Herman Stuempfle.

    Thanks for sharing this, Anthony.

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