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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