St. Benedict’s Abbey Church, Atchison, Kansas (1951-1957)

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This church has an amazing modern interior and features side-facing choir galleries and a student nave designed for the Benedictine monks.

stbenedicts_interiorIn 1945, Byrne was selected as architect for the master plan to incorporate existing and new buildings for the monastery and college. The commission to design the abbey church came some five years later. Overall the project ran between 1951-1957.

The interesting aspect of this commission was that it was required to use the foundations laid for an earlier project in 1928 that fell victim to the stock market crash of 1929. Byrne tried to suggest alternatives but eventually agreed to take on the challenge.

The nave consists of four tall piers, separated by equally tall windows. The 44 foot high ceiling and 128 foot tower make this structure impressive. The piers expand progressively and hint at the octagonal expansions of Christ the King, Turners Cross. The variation however is that this expansion is much slower with the use of wide piers and does not reverse back to a single point. Thus the widest point of the expansion is at the steps of the altar. Here the ceiling drops and floor level rises to form a dramatic climax.

stbenedicts_student_naveBehind the altar, is the student nave which is of similar design to the main nave and uses piers that gradually contract away from the altar, but in a smaller scale. The sanctuary in effect becomes the joining point for the two naves, one large and one small.

The frescoe which decorates the rear sanctuary wall, is entitled “The Trinity and Episodes of Benedictine Life”. It was executed in 1959 by the reknowned artist Jean Charlot.

Christ is not depicted as suffering, rather shown in glory. This according to the artist was traditional in pre-Gothic art. Other features on the frescoe include events from the life of St. Benedict, images of his twin sister St. Scholastica and scenes from the frontier history of the Atchison Benedictine monks.

One oddity is that the main altar has no dedicated tabernacle. Instead the tabernacle of a side chapel is used. The likely reason for this was probably to ensure an obstructed view from both naves.

The interior is a thoughtful combination of terazzo flooring, brick and polished limestone walls. The suspended ceiling is comprised of aluminium tiles with a mixture of white, yellow and grey enamel finishes. The altars are made of marble while the pews, choir stalls and other woodwork are of white oak. Much of the colourful interior art work was designed by Byrnes wife, Annette Cremin Byrne.

Our sincere appreciation is extended to J.N.Shaumeyer for providing an extensive set of images of this church featured on this page and in the gallery.

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