A POST-PREFACE TO SAINT JOHN'S AT 150
A year ago we received the first copies of Saint John's sesquicentennial book from the printer in China and it looked pretty good to me. When it went on sale in April at the start of our anniversary year, people seemed pleased with it and those of us who had produced it got compliments and only a few corrections. One friendly critic wrote to say that the 1947 picture of the orchestra on page 90 appeared in the 1944 volume of The Sagatagan, the college yearbook. Father Magnus Wenninger liked the photo of him and his polyhedrons on page 25 but said he estimated that he had made several thousand models, not seven thousand. Several readers noted that the school located south of the cemetery was the parish school, not a public school.
There may be other errors that have not been called to my attention, but I am happy that so far nobody has reported a typographical error, a tribute to Jack Schneider, the copy editor, and also Ann Blattner and Lee Hanley, who read and re-read the manuscript with professional care.
I am not so happy about the failure of the book to attract any serious attention from local or national reviewers. Last summer Father James Gray, O.S.B., did a detailed and informed review in The Prairie Messenger, published at St. Peter's Abbey in Saskatchewan, but that's it. Despite the fact that x-number of review copies were sent out, the book has not been noticed by any lay periodical in Minnesota -- for example, Minnesota History -- or by any national periodical Catholic or otherwise -- for example, America, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, or Minnesota's very own The Wanderer, which is favorably mentioned in Dr. Bernard Evan's chapter on liturgy and social justice.
My hunch is that people that got review copies assumed that it was mainly a picture book with predictably laudatory texts unlikely to be of much interest or value for readers other than devoted alumni and friends. I hoped that the book might avoid that sort of cursory treatment. Although it was not intended to replace Father Colman Barry's centennial Worship and Work as a history of Saint John's, it was designed to have substantial historical value and to avoid a tone of uncritical self-congratulation.
All of the contributors to the book, some forty in all, understood that Saint John's almost from the first grew accustomed to playing a role beyond the immediate community. This was partly in endeavors now past such as a century-long mission to the Indians of northern Minnesota and the Catholic population of The Bahamas, the early thrust of the liturgical movement, the founding of Minnesota Public Radio. It is partly in endeavors on the current scene such as the continuing role of Liturgical Press as a Catholic publisher, the ecumenical leadership of Collegeville Institute, the scholarly reach of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, the remarkable artistic and religious impact of the Saint John's Bible.
It may have been a mistake not to list the academic credentials and professional background of many of the authors. The contributors list at the back deliberately eschews the sort of information that I thought would be pedantic in a book aimed at a general audience and that can so easily be found on the internet by anybody that wants to check out Ham Smith or Katherine Powers or Al Eisele or Annette Atkins or Bill Franklin or any of the others who wrote something for the book.
The risk of this approach, I now see, is that carefully considered statements by people qualified to make them may not be recognized as such. I think for example of Ham Smith's quiet summary statement: "The Saint John's abbey church is a building fully realized, and I regard it as Marcel Breuer's finest achievement" (118). Or Bill Kling's assessment of the abbey's contribution to what became Minnesota Public Radio: "Even fewer institutions would have given up their broadcast licenses and assets in order to help save the 'mission,' as Saint John's did. Those selfless acts -- looking at the long-range community good ... believing it could be done -- may be one of Saint John's proudest moments" (17). Or Bill Franklin on Virgil Michel's grasp of the connection between a revitalized liturgy and social conscience: "He saw and implemented in every way at his command the impulse that leads from participation in worship to involvement in the search for peace and justice in the world" (76).
There are authoritative voices throughout the book: Brenda Child on the Indian boarding schools of the 1880s, Annette Atkins on the impact of national anti-German feeling on predominantly German communities like Saint John's and Stearns County during World War I, Columba Stewart on the quality and kind of current monasticism at Saint John's, Kilian McDonnell on the ecumenical initiative of the Collegeville Institute, Derek Larson on the stewardship of natural resources, Larry Haeg on the calibre of student life in both prep school and college, and many others. These give the book a wider relevance than might be expected in a celebratory volume and were intended to give it a permanent niche in Minnesota history and in the history of the American church.
To find it relegated to a slot among devotional titles at Barnes & Noble is disheartening. I cherish the hope that it may yet be discovered by qualified reviewers and assessed for what it is, a portrait of a not insignificant institution that has been responsive to the community that grew up around it and instrumental in shaping a much larger community.
Hilary Thimmesh, O.S.B.
January 10, 2007