Of the many beautiful and tranquil areas on the Northshore, one place that I find to be truly inspiring and comforting is the St. Joseph Abbey. It’s a mystical site, where peace and calm resides.
Occasionally, Luke and I will go to the Abbey’s Church during a weekday. Not necessarily for the tours, which I hear are wonderfully informative. But, sometimes, for peace of mind, and other times, to soothe our souls. A few weeks ago was one of those times. Everything in our own little world felt upside-down and backwards, chaotic and confusing, and surreal in the worst sort of way. We both were in desperate need of spiritual guidance, peace of mind, and a sense of order in life’s happenings. We had a strong feeling that we could find it at the St. Joseph Abbey.
The grounds of St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College are a 1,200 acre site of beautiful piney woods and flowering gardens. This remarkable place is located about 50 miles north of New Orleans, near Covington, at 75376 River Road in St. Benedict, Louisiana. To get there, you have to drive slowly along the narrow road, which is quite pleasant under a canopy of trees in the rural setting.
When you see the Abbey’s modest entrance sign, you’ll turn off River Road then cross over the Bogue Falaya River on a one-lane bridge. To the right-hand side of the lane is a large man-made pond. You might see a local artist painting en plein air, along its tree-lined edges. Nearby, across the lane from the pond, is the brick Romanesque-style church where the Benedictine monks pray and chant daily.
The stately St. Joseph Abbey Church was built in 1932. The magnificent standard cruciform designed structure has been designated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2007.
Theodore ‘Theo’ Brune was the brilliant master architect who designed the Benedictine monastery’s main church and sanctuary in 1930. He was born in Germany in 1854, and studied architecture in the universities of that country, where he graduated with the highest honors. Brune immigrated to the United States in 1886, and was the noted design architect of many churches in south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. He had an architectural office in New Orleans, until his death in the Crescent City in 1932 at the age of 78. The blueprints associated with Brune’s designs for the St. Joseph Abbey reside in the Southeastern Architectural Archive’s Philip P. Cazale’ Office Records. Upon his death, Brune was interned at St. Joseph’s Abbey.
Theological details of can be found in many of the architectural details of the Church, such as in the Corinthian capital of the exterior columns.
There is a beautiful decorative mosaic tile medallion in the pediment, reflecting the symbolism found on the Benedictine medal. Pax is written over the St. Benedict Cross and means ‘Peace’ in Latin. This is the motto of the Benedictine Order.
Walking into the Church through the massive wooden front doors, the symmetry of the interior architecture and the explosion of liturgical colors in the brilliant biblical murals by Dom Gregory de Wit above the choir and domed-apse sections of the church immediately come into view.
I thought back to when I was studying architecture and interior design at USL (now ULL) in Lafayette. Ever since then, on my office reference bookshelves, I’ve had the book, “Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn”. On the cover is an image of the water channel in the Salk Institute’s courtyard with a view of the sea beyond. Then I remembered one of his quotes.
I started to feel a sense of calm come over me as we walked inside the Church. Luke took a seat to pray in one of the rows of oak pews, and I continued to work on taking pictures. The simplicity in the cypress trusses, rose-shaped and arched windows with ‘reamy’ art glass, and plain furnishings definitely reflects the essence of The Rule of Saint Benedict. For over a century, the monks of St. Joseph Abbey have sought to define their lives with the phrase ‘ora et labora’, meaning ‘prayer and work’. The space is absolutely inspiring.
Dom Gregory de Wit was commissioned in 1946 to paint the murals in the Abbey Church and the refectory building. In order to withstand the humid climate on the grounds in south Louisiana, he used his own paint mixtures from powdered pigments and potassium silicate. It took over 10 years to paint the murals, and the amazing results on the walls and ceilings have remained well-preserved.
In the niches beyond the colonnade of the arched columns along the nave of the Church, de Wit painted female saints on the left side and male saints on the right side. Two of these murals in particular stood out to me. Saint Cecilia, who is the Patron Saint of Musicians. And, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, the Patron Saint of Musicians, Singers, Teachers, Students, and Masons, among others.
Appearing to almost float above the choir hangs the Dobson Tracker Opus 73 organ, designed and built in 2000 by the Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd., of Lake City, Iowa. The beautiful pipe organ was quiet during our visit that day, but when this magnificent instrument’s 2,019 pipes are played, you can feel the music flow through your entire body and soul.
There are two small chapels on the western end of the Church, near the entrance. Each chapel has carved wooden statues, said to be from designs by de Wit. In one of the chapels is a carved statue of St. Joseph, and in the other is a carved statue of St. Benedict of Nursia.
We’d gone to the Abbey that day to pray for Luke’s two older brothers, David and Alvin. They’d both been diagnosed with cancer this year, and were in the same hospital at the same time. Ironically, during the early 1990’s, Luke had been project manager over the construction of the original radiation/oncology suite where his oldest brother, David, was receiving treatments earlier this spring and summer. Things became extremely surreal at one point when David and Alvin were both in ICU in the same hospital wing, only four rooms apart from each other. We felt absolutely helpless.
“David M. Spicuzza, FAIA Architect, native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and lived in Abita Springs, passed away peacefully on Wednesday, August 13, 2014, with his family by his side.”
We’re problem-solvers in the world of design and construction. Building parts and pieces can be removed, replaced, repaired, or renovated. But, when a person’s body is invaded by cancer, there are mysteries that only God can solve. And, so we pray and work, every day.
When we walked out of the Church, we’d decided to walk down a gravel lane beyond the Christian Life Center. It’s a quiet and peaceful area, where you can hear birds singing and smell the sweet scent of the Magnolia trees drifting through the air.
Further along is the cemetery, where the grand Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak tree stands. It is registered member #2464 in the Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, Inc. Although it was severely damaged during a powerful storm in late 1957 and was at risk of being cut down, it still thrives today.
When we left the Abbey that day, we took with us a renewed sense of calm and peace of mind. We knew that we weren’t alone in the storm we were facing, and that our faith would keep us grounded.
Have you ever been to the St. Joseph Abbey? If so, what inspired you there? Do tell!