The Benedictines

If the Catholic Church is the oldest institution of the Western civilization that exists today, the Order of St. Benedict is the second on the list. Who are the Benedictines? They are the followers of Saint Benedict of Nursia, considered the founder of the Western Christian monasticism, Saint Benedict was not only one of the most influential figures in the spiritual life of Christendom, but he should also be recognized as a torchbearer of the early development of European civilization. The Benedictines are people who have dedicated their lives to Christian worship, living mostly in autonomous communities based on precepts spelled out in The Rule of St. Benedict.

Daily life for a Benedictine monk is organized in regular periods of prayer (communal and private), work, and sleep. The heart of the community is the Liturgy of Hours — The Divine Office — that takes precedence over all other daily activity. The monks take a vow of poverty which prevents them from owning private property, as well as vows of chastity and obedience to the Abbot, the highest monastic authority in the community. The monks also take a vow of stability: a promise to remain and live out the rest of their lives in the same monastery they initially enter and the so-called Conversatio morum - a commitment to continuous change of heart and a life-long practice of conversion to the ideals of monastic life.

Established by fur traders Pierre Laclède and René Auguste Chouteau, Jr. in February 1764, the city of St. Louis was named after Louis the 9th. The King of France and a saint of the Catholic Church, Louis the 9th was a man of great piety, who invited the poor to his table daily and is recognized as a great patron of arts and architecture. As it grew, the city of Saint Louis became a vital centre of trade and business and also functioned as an important transportation hub for the region. Pierre-Joseph Didier was the first Benedictine monk to come to the United States. Didier settled in and served the Catholic community of St. Louis from 1794 to the time of his death in 1799.

To understand the character of the city of Saint Louis, we have to take into account not only its economic and political history but also its religious heritage, much of which is still alive today. In addition to becoming a hub of Catholicism, St. Louis attracted people of many different faiths: German Protestants, Jews, Eastern Catholics, etc., yet the Roman Catholic tradition is a particularly important part of the identity of the city that is sometimes called The Rome of the West."

In 1955 a group of English monks based at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, England accepted an invitation from a group of influential people in Saint Louis to establish a new Catholic school for boys. This school became Saint Louis Priory. 18 years later, the monastery gained independence in 1973, and another 16 years later became Saint Louis Abbey in 1989. The Abbey belongs to the English Benedictine Congregation, the oldest of the nineteen Benedictine congregations. Its history dates back to 597 when Augustine of Canterbury founded the first English Benedictine monastery soon after his arrival to Canterbury.

In his essay "Monks, Priests, and Laity," published in A School of the Lord's Service, Fr. Timothy Horner, OSB, outlines the Abbey's "family tree" as follows:

  1. Westminster Abbey (royal abbey founded in 10th century)
  2. Dieulouard founded in France in 1607 by the last surviving monk of Westminster Abbey who escaped religious persecution in England.
  3. Ampleforth established in North Yorkshire in 1802, soon after the monks of Dieulouard had to leave France due to the French Revolution.
  4. Saint Louis.

The Abbey church itself was designed by Gyo Obata of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Architects and dedicated in 1962. It is a prominent architectural landmark and has earned many prestigious awards for its design. The facade consists of three tiers of thin-poured concrete parabolic arches, with the top tier forming a large bell tower with five bells called Benedict, Frederick, Joseph, Jerome, and Edward — the latter four in recognition of the Switzer brothers, who were among the most significant benefactors of the Priory. The church holds a 14th-century sculpture of the Madonna and Christ Child, a 17th-century holy font in the Della Robbia style, and modern sacred art by artists from the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and France.

On the grounds outside the church are life-size sculptures of the abbey's patron saints, Saint Benedict by Polish artist Wiktor Szostało, and the Holy Blessed Virgin Mother Mary, by American sculptor Philip Howie called Our Lady of Grace. Since 1966 the church has served a dual role, as the church of Saint Louis Abbey and the church of Saint Anselm Parish.

Monasteries are fertile soil for literature, music, and visual arts. They often facilitate nurturing and preservation of the creative arts and have done so throughout many centuries. A profound, intimate, and, organic relationship between the Benedictines and the arts stems from the centrality of worship in the life of the Benedictines, with music being an integral part of the liturgy.

"To this day, all monasteries pay great attention to an aesthetic sense that honors beauty, balance, and harmony as attributes of God. For untold years, music and art have been a means of focusing the mind and body, facilitating meditation and prayer across time, language and culture." — Katharine Le Mée, The Benedictine Gift to Music

The centuries-long symbiotic relationship between monastic life and sacred art and architecture has long meant a friendly environment for musicians and artists. Benedictine theorists such as Hucbald, Pseudo-Odo, and Aurelian established the principles of the modal system. Benedictine Guido d'Arezzo, created neums, making, thus, a significant contribution to the development of the musical notation. Compositions by a Benedictine nun, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) provide some of the most inspiring examples of music fully integrated with an intense religious experience of the Catholic Church. Visionary mystic poet, theologian, and polymath, Hildegard was the most significant female personality known in the High Middle Ages.

Saint Louis is a city of remarkable religious vitality, the city of many churches seen as a dynamic force shaping its character. The Saint Louis Abbey community hopes to be a vital part of the fabric of the city. It aims to champion Christian culture and share sacred arts and music with the people of Saint Louis, helping them discover the spiritual "treasures" which also include our beautiful landmark organ.

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Saint Louis Abbey Church
500 S Mason Rd
Creve Coeur
MO 63141
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