Just as they did in the 1950s when they invited Marcel Breuer to Collegeville to design their sacred space, the Benedictines of Saint John’s Abbey welcomed Victoria Young, professor and chair of the St. Thomas Art History Department, to tell the story of the abbey church.
Young’s book, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space, was released by the University of Minnesota Press in October. It illuminates the story of how the Saint John’s monks chose the Hungarian-born architect, an untested religious designer, to produce a work of modern sculptural concrete architecture that re-envisioned what a church could be and set a worldwide standard for midcentury religious design.
The book documents the dialogue of the design process: Breuer instructed the monks about architecture and they, in turn, guided him and his associates in the construction of sacred space in the crucial years of liturgical reform.
“It’s the story of a really important building moment at a time when the whole church is in upheaval. This is right on the cusp of Vatican II,” Young said. “At the time they commissioned Breuer, Saint John’s Abbey was the biggest Benedictine house in the world. They were leaders of the liturgical reform movement, which was reshaping the way the church is going to be laid out.” According to Young, it was important their new facility reflect that transformation.
While the monks were interested in finding the right designer, for them it was more about finding the right person. Young said they liked Breuer because he was humble. “There was one note I found that one of the monks had written on a piece of scratch paper, ‘He didn’t say anything until the end of the day.’ They really liked that. He was really listening, looking and observing,” she said. “He had this very unassuming way about him. They felt like he was a really good designer but that there would be an ability to help shape that design.”
That opportunity for collaboration is what won the job for Breuer. “I really saw how much back and forth there was. Even the littlest details, like the design of a lavabo or a washing station down in the lower level, went through five or six iterations,” Young said. “The Benedictines would send his office Catholic and liturgical documents to read, and Breuer was always talking to them about architecture, and it was just kind of this really lovely relationship that allowed for a great building like this.”
Studying Breuer’s design of the abbey church was a natural fit for Young. As an undergrad at New York University, one of her faculty members was Renaissance art historian Isabelle Hyman, who was Breuer’s personal secretary during the construction of the abbey church. As Young continued her studies, the architect’s work became the focus of her dissertation at the University of Virginia.
When she moved back to her home state of Minnesota to work at St. Thomas, she was able to continue her research in Collegeville. That was when the idea of a book came to fruition. “It was a really important moment for me, to think about it as a story to tell rather than an exercise to complete. I want to put the reader there in that seat at the opening Mass,” she said, noting that a book will be more widely accessible to the Saint John’s community than simply publishing her dissertation.
What began more than 50 years ago as a grand collaboration between the Benedictines and Breuer continued in that spirit through the production of Young’s book.
“It means a lot to them to have something like this in perpetuity to go back to. They have been so incredibly supportive,” she said. “I hope that they think it represents them really well.”
Young also hopes the book helps put Minnesota and Midwestern architecture on the map. “I hope it gets some traction in architectural history in general, so people know this place exists here,” she said. “I teach here but I’m also really wedded to things that are going on here. We’ve got fantastic architecture in Minnesota. We are a gold mine.”
Young will sign copies of Saint John’s Abbey Church from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Tommie Shop in the Anderson Student Center.