Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Public Radio’

IMG_5645Serving the Niche Market

He was a fixture on campus during my first years at Saint John’s.  Each morning, like clock-work, with measured steps he strode up to Wimmer Hall and disappeared into the building.  Never did I meet him, nor did I ever get to hear his voice live.  But Garrison Keillor’s electronic voice was a daily presence in my life — as well as in the lives of many of my confreres.

I recall wondering at the time whether Keillor would ever make something of himself.  Certainly I was of the opinion that he was a scream, what with his ads for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and Jack’s — “All tracks lead to Jack’s.”  I longed to walk the streets of Lake Wobegon, though I knew it was a fictional amalgam of several nearby towns.  Then there was his approach to sports, which I very much appreciated.  It was Keillor who had introduced Jim Ed Poole to the world of sports broadcasting, and when Keillor turned to Jim Ed for the scores, that’s precisely what he got.  “7-3.  8-2.  10-5. Etc.”. Then there were the days when Keillor asked about the previous day’s games, and Jim Ed happily obliged with the same spare style.  “The Detroit team played the Boston team.  The Kansas City team hosted the Los Angeles team.”  That pretty much satisfied my interest in sports, and I often wondered why the NFL never drafted Jim-Ed to do the color-commentary for Monday Night Football.  I speculated that Minnesota Public Radio had Jim Ed locked into a lucrative multi-year contract.  If so, it was the NFL’s loss.

IMG_5603Fr. Colman Barry, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, had an amazingly productive imagination.  During his tenure as president of Saint John’s University in the late 1960s he presided over a campus building boom and a range of projects that continue to this day.  Under his aegis came the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and its mission to preserve manuscripts from the Middle Ages and beyond.  The Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies was the first such initiative at a Catholic college, and the Collegeville Institute promoted ecumenical relations.  All are in the midst of celebrating milestones in their existence, and each has made a singular contribution to religion and culture.  Their endurance argues that Fr. Colman’s ideas were anything but frivolous and ephemeral.  But if there was one idea that exceeded his wildest dreams, it was Minnesota Public Radio.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, last week MPR returned to its birthplace at Saint John’s and for two days resumed broadcasting.  This time around Sexton Commons served as the makeshift studio rather than Wimmer Hall, and spliced within its staple of recorded classical music were live performances by our music faculty and students, as well as interviews with various local notables.  In the course of the broadcasts all sorts of people dropped in to watch and listen, and it was a festive experience of arts and culture and ideas.  Fr. Colman would have been delighted.

IMG_5668When Fr. Colman started a campus radio station at Saint John’s his goals were modest.  At the very last he wanted to supply central Minnesota with classical music — something that tended to be in short supply on the radio dial across much of the country.  It was a niche market that had potential; nor was potential lacking in Bill Kling, the student to whom Fr. Colman entrusted leadership.  Under Kling MPR has grown into a national force, and at 50 years it now has 21 million listeners.

In retrospect Fr. Colman’s effort was unusual for its lack of confessional orientation.  For many years MPR did broadcast the Sunday Mass at the abbey, but absent was the spiritual didactic that has become the staple of religious radio and television today.  Fr. Colman’s goal was cultural enrichment for everyone, and it didn’t bother him in the least if the audience included Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, agnostics and atheists.  The irony of course is the fact that it came from a Benedictine abbey, and from the Benedictine perspective it all glorified God.

There is nothing in the Rule of Saint Benedict about radio stations or even cultural life.  Still, Benedict’s blessing of daily work and his reverence for the tools of the monastery can embrace any creative human endeavor.  Not surprisingly then, monasteries through the centuries have engaged artists and architects to design work that has inspired not just the monks but also the visitors to their monasteries.  From a larger perspective, they have stretched their musical talents even as they have honed their agricultural skills.

IMG_5586That helps to explain the character of a Benedictine house.  Certainly we pray, and we do so in formats that have scarcely changed through the centuries.  But monasteries continue to evolve because individual monks bring unique talents with them when they come knocking at the door.  That suggests that each monk is himself a unique gift from God, meant to enrich the lives of the monks and the people they serve.  That’s the theory at least, and often enough it works.

The campus radio station at Saint John’s was meant to serve a niche market.  Who knew that the niche would grow to include 21 million listeners by its 50th birthday?  Obviously it has met some need.  But then Saint Benedict wrote a rule for a group of monks at Monte Cassino in central Italy.  How could he possibly have known that someday somebody would be following that rule in Lake Wobegon?  He didn’t know, of course, but it was still another niche market that had potential.


+On 24 April I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On 25 April I sat in its makeshift studio as Minnesota Public Radio did its broadcast from Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.

+On 29 April our confrere, Fr. Mark Thamert, passed away at age 66 after a long struggle with cancer.  Fr. Mark was a gifted teacher and an imaginative individual, and we will miss his enthusiasm for life.  He earned a doctorate in German from Princeton University, and he came alive in the classroom and particularly when leading student groups to Europe.

+As I write this I am in Paris waiting to join the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  I have come three days early, and the Metro with its challenging stairs have proven to be excellent therapy for the recovery of my back.  Lourdes, with its marathon processions and endless milling around, will be the big test.

+Today’s is the 300th post in this blog.  Thankfully I have not yet run short of ideas.  Thank you for reading, and I’m grateful for the comments and ideas that people have sent in the course of five and a half years.

IMG_5584+The photos in today’s post illustrate the broadcast day of Minnesota Public Radio at Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.  The photo of the building shows Wimmer Hall, and its third floor housed the broadcast studios for Minnesota Public Radio in its earliest days.  In the photo at bottom a technician puzzles over all the stuff it takes to broadcast, even from the road.  Gone are the simple days.

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IMG_5558Alcuin Library Revisited

For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath.  This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation.  For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like.  Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk.  At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that.  As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.

It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose.  That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie.  In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books.  By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon.  While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.

IMG_5404That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary.  Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today.  Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined;  but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today.  They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.

For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer.  Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library.  Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.  These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors.  Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck.  It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today.  And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.

IMG_5542That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation.  For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul.  Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before.  The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza.  Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.

This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons.  Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study.  Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.

And what about the books?  Do they still have a place?  Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room.  Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.

IMG_5524And is there room for growth?  Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand.  Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves.  And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University.  Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries.  Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse.  Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU.  Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?  I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been.  Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.

No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over.  There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition.  Would Saint Benedict be proud?  Perhaps.  But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.


+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..

+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.  Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR.  No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University.  On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.

+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.

+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.


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imageMonastic, or Un-monastic?

The weather was not overly kind to us during the last days of August in Minnesota. More precisely, it was awful, with heat and humidity that made life nearly unbearable for over a week.

In the monastery we tend to take this sort of thing stoically, even if we’re not entirely happy about it.  We know it won’t last forever; and besides, it serves a useful purpose.  It gets us in the mood for winter, and we start to pine for those frosty February days that we grew tired of at the time.  But this spell of heat was different.  And while I can’t speak for all of my confreres, it did sap the vitality of many of us.

Whatever else you may want to say about monks, we are a persistent lot.  We refuse to cave in easily, even in the face of cold hard logic.  That explains why most of us continued to wear habits in our un-air-conditioned church.  And as the celebrant for Sunday Mass at the apex of this heat wave, I got more than my share of payback for this stubbornness.  For well over an hour I stood in the sanctuary, dressed in habit, alb and chasuble, with a heat index approaching 100.

imageAt the end of Mass I staggered out of church and threw my habit and alb into the washer, and myself into a cold shower.  My plan was to appear crisp and polished as the celebrant for Vespers at 5 pm.  I duly reappeared in habit, alb and cope, but of course it was even hotter than before.  And the heavy incense that we use at Vespers made it even worse.  By the end of Vespers I had wilted, and my vestments reeked of this exotic perfume.  It was time for a repeat visit to the laundry and the shower.

It’s not that we monks never see these days coming, because we have two infallible guides that signal impending misery.  The first are the wooden handrails on the stairs.  When they are sticky to the touch, we know it’s going to be a bad day.  The second are our footfalls on the brick floor that leads into church.  Normally our steps are nearly silent.  But when they sound like a herd of squeaky mice, we know it’s too late to do much of anything, except to laugh at the joyful noise.

imageThe simple solution would be to air-condition everything and make a distant memory of those sorts of days altogether.  But that’s not the way it works in monasteries.  The same dynamic that gives a monastery continuity also deters abrupt change.  Like a steamship, we can’t turn on a dime.  But we will definitely get where we’re going.

Once upon a time there was no air-conditioning anywhere in our monastery.  With shady porches, big windows and high-ceilinged halls, our 19th-century buildings were designed to circulate air and make things livable, if not comfortable, in the summer.  The installation of fire doors, energy-efficient windows, false ceilings and the like began to choke the free flow of air.  In time, the 1880’s-era wing of the monastery evolved into a slow-bake oven that cooled only when the leaves began to fall.

For several years we mulled the question of what to do about rooms that would cool into the high 80’s at night.  For those of us who lived there, the solution was obvious.  For those who lived in the more breezy 1950’s wing of the monastery, air-conditioning was “un-monastic.”  And it remained “un-monastic” until we finally coaxed the abbot to spend one particularly sultry evening on our floor.  That immediately countered the appeal to “un-monastic”, and eventually the air was flowing.

imageOf course air-conditioning has not been the only item to earn the dreaded label “un-monastic”.  For years most monasteries around the world debated whether television was un-monastic.  Eventually the television producers decided the question for us.

Before television the debate centered on radio, so I’m told.  Was radio the devil’s own ploy to invade the cloister?  It too seemed suspiciously un-monastic, and literalists could appeal to Saint Benedict’s 6th-century Rule, which made no provision for monks either owning or listening to radios.  At Saint John’s we definitively settled that issue when we started a classical music station.  KSJR eventually grew to become Minnesota Public Radio.  So I suppose we could say that we turned the devil’s sow’s ear into a great cultural silk purse.  And we baptized it in the process.

But that hardly exhausts this history of the resort to “un-monastic” as the ultimate argument.  In the 19th century American monks across the country argued whether it was un-monastic to dress in work clothes rather than in habit when they did manual labor.  Experience  eventually provided the answer after several monks got their habits tangled in farm machinery.  With good reason a few began to argue that farm accidents were even more un-monastic than not wearing one’s habit in the barnyard.  Who could argue with that line of logic? And so they dispensed with habit-wearing during manual labor.  That, then, is how things once-deemed un-monastic eventually become monastic.

imageFor ages monks and nuns have relied on the “un-monastic” trump card to stall any and all change.  Granted, it is a very weak argument, but its usage is not unique to us.  All sorts of people employ it, or a variation of it.  So whenever someone stands up to propose something new, you can bet that someone else will counter with the local equivalent of “un-monastic.”  “We’ve never done that before” is a rejoinder you often hear.  And people expect that will end the debate.  But of course it seldom does.

Taken together, it’s all an appeal to the force of tradition.  I’m the first to admit that tradition carries a lot of weight, but I’m certainly not the only one.  Even my Lutheran pastor friends will privately admit that appeals to Scripture don’t always refute appeals to Tradition in their parishes.  Many a pastor has touched the third rail in proposing change, only to be vanquished by ardent church members armed with this fundamental truth:  “But Pastor, we’ve always done it this way.”  And of course they are right, even if “always” means the last year or two.

imageThere are good reasons to stand with continuity and stability, because they nurture individuals and families and communities.  But when they lead to lethargy, they can stifle and kill the spirit.

Conversely, change and development can be life-giving and renewing.  They can rescue individual monks and communities from the proverbial rut.  But arbitrary change that is not rooted in the fundamental tradition can be as disruptive as total resistance to anything that is deemed un-monastic.

All of this points to why God gave each of us brains.  Monastic life, Christian life, and all life for that matter, are works of art.  But the artistic process demands that we use our brains, particularly when we pray about things.  And when we’re done praying, God asks us to act.

imageAs for the current state of air-conditioning in our monastery, it’s a work in process.  We continue to pray about it.  Right now the old wing has it, and the new wing and the church do not.  Personally I’m now fully convinced that air-conditioning in the old wing is totally monastic.  In fact, it would be un-monastic not to have it.  Living in that wing for twenty years has convinced me of that.  And I will be totally objective and venture that an air-conditioned church would also be very monastic.  As for the new wing of the monastery, I will have to pray about that some more.  For now I think it would be un-monastic to have it there.  After all, we’ve never had it there, and Saint Benedict says nothing in the Rule about air-conditioning new wings of monasteries.  But I remain open-minded.  If someday I should have to move into the new wing, I reserve the right to change my mind on this.  And I’ll do it on a dime.


+During the past week I stayed home at Saint John’s.  But I savored the memories of time away this summer, including a visit to the former Carthusian monastery of Buxheim, in southern Germany.  It is most noted for its stunningly beautiful choir stalls, which are in extraordinary condition.  Remarkably, the complex remains largely intact, though only a few of the original hermits’ cells remain.  The pictures in today’s post all originate from Buxheim.

+Our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann has just completed a concert tour of Japan, during which he played at several halls both in Tokyo and elsewhere — including a recital at our priory in Fujimi.  This completed a sabbatical which took him to Berkeley and then to New York.  While in New York he participated in the production of one music video in which he played the piano with singer Fr. Austin Litke, OP, and violinist Leah Sedlacek, who works at the Catholic Center at NYU.  On his return to Saint John’s Fr. Bob will assume the title President Emeritus of the University, and he will resume teaching piano to a few very lucky students.

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