Sense of place
defines the Saint John’s experience By Dr. Eugene McAllister, interim president One of the powerful descriptions of Saint John’s University is the phrase “sense of place.” Fr. Hilary Thimmesh, who served as president of Saint John’s, attributed it to Professor David Greene, a “gnarled and weathered” Shakespearean scholar from the University of Chicago and a frequent visitor to campus. As interim president, part of my job is to hold up a mirror to our campus community, pointing out how truly remarkable we are. To me, “a sense of place” captures the uniqueness, mystique and sacredness of Saint John’s. Saint John’s “sense of place” is a combination of people, ideas and ideals, located in this amazing setting of the Abbey Church and wooded fields, all under the umbrella of an intellectual Catholicism that is optimistic, hopeful and embracing. The photographs of the early years of the Abbey and the University that are on display in the Quad give a glimpse of the origins of “sense of place.” The monks laboring in the snow, building the church and classrooms while following the Benedictine call for the glorification of God were the beginnings. This “sense of place” was so exciting that Collegeville could not contain it. Fr. Baldwin Dworschak, the sixth abbot, was invited to help draft the Vatican II documents. He served as interlocutor with Marcel Breuer in the design of the Abbey Church. Our theologians were part of cutting-edge discussions, and the principles of social action and Catholic rural communities were part of the conversation.
In January, Minnesota Public Radio saluted Fr. Colman Barry’s role in creating this leap in communication and community. And Br. Dietrich Reinhart – like Fr. Colman a remarkable president – had the perspicacity to sponsor the creation of The Saint John’s Bible. This “sense of place” is alive today. The recognition achieved recently by Fr. Columba Stewart and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library is grounded in this “sense of place” and Saint John’s national and international importance. I had the privilege of attending Fr. Columba’s Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C. and marveled at the record crowd that came to hear a monk from Collegeville, Minnesota. Fr. Columba’s message was rooted in our “sense of place,” deftly turning from manuscripts to human dignity. From Lebanon to Syria to Timbuktu, humble people – people in danger – are entrusting this place, Saint John’s, to preserve their story and protect their heritage. This “sense of place” is advanced by the community members who serve for 30 and 40 years or more. The monastics living as counselors in the student residences build this “sense of place.” We can feel this “sense of place” in the pottery studio, the carpentry shop and the Liturgical Press. Saint John’s graduates share this “sense of place” in their new communities. And of course Fr. Don Talafous’s daily reflections are an integral part of our “sense of place.” As we move forward with our colleagues at the College of Saint Benedict to face the challenges confronting American higher education, I know we will be successful. We have a “sense of place.”