St. John’s, Minnesota
I spent most of the month of May at St. John’s University and Abbey, doing research in their Hill Monastic Manuscript Library. St. John’s is about 90 miles northwest of Minneapolis, and about 10 miles from St. Cloud. The monastery and college sit in the middle of several thousand acres of woods and lakes, and the place is extremely peaceful. It is also extremely Catholic, as one might imagine.
My time in St. John’s was primarily spent in the Hill Library, looking through microfilmed manuscripts from monasteries and churches in Spain and Austria. I was looking for supplementary material to bolster my dissertation, as I try to turn it into a real book. I had some success, though honestly I found more things that I was not necessarily looking for, but proved important, than things I thought I would find. Overall, it was a very successful research trip. The staff of the library, especially their fellowship coordinator, Julie Dietman, was very kind and welcoming, and I highly recommend the place.
I was housed in the seminary of St. John’s University. Being May, most of the students were gone, and so the place was very quiet and peaceful. Like the Library, the staff here, especially Patty Weisgart, was very welcoming, and I enjoyed my stay. The seminary building was a sort of mid-twentieth century academic/institutional architecture, very big and honestly slightly creepy a night.
Much of the rest of the architecture of St. John’s was a much more modern sort of architecture, perhaps unusually so. The library and the abbey church were designed one of the monks, XX, in the 19XXS. As you can see, his style was aggressively unique, and apparently quite consciously avoided drawing inspiration from any traditional Catholic designs. I am ambivalent about the results. The library is a nice building, but the church is… striking.
I also spent a great deal of time hiking and running on the many trails around the campus. I particularly enjoyed the trails around XX Lake, probably because it was right beside the seminary. There is a tiny chapel on the far side, dedicated to Mary Stella Maris (star of the sea), despite the fact this may be the place on the North American continent furthest from salt water. There was a pair of bald eagles nesting on the far side of the lake. The first time I came across them, one of them attacked me, or at least flew low over me several times making angry clucking and warbling sounds. After that, they were pretty shy, and I tried to give them a wide berth so as to not scare them away from their nest. There were numerous other birds that were unusual to me, including scarlet tanagers.
The woods were barely entering spring when I arrived on May 13, but were in full summer mode by the time I left in June. Experiencing two full springs, one at home and one in Minnesota was definitely a nice bonus to the trip. The weather was a little unusual however. The night before I drove to Minnesota it was 45 degrees in Chicago. When drove through Minneapolis the next afternoon it was 100. It promptly dropped back into the low 60s, and stayed there until just before I left.
By the time I left, the woods had also sprouted an impressive amount of terrible pests, mostly mosquitos. There were many deer ticks as well, and in fact one of the least pleasant parts of the woods was a field in which I watched large black spiders eating ticks and garter snakes eating them both.
While the campus and countryside were very nice, I can’t say a lot positive about the town of St. Cloud. The matching girl’s school, St. Benedict, lay between St. John’s and St. Cloud, and seemed to have some great, much more traditional church architecture. St. Cloud itself was a sleepy college town (St. Cloud University). I am sure it is interesting when the students are in town, especially during hockey season, but in mid-May it was pretty dull. But it is a Mississippi town, even if the mighty river looks pretty tame this far north.
Of particular note were some of the vile restaurant options, especially Taco John’s. Taco John’s was every bit what one might expect from a local Midwestern Taco Bell knock-off. It was mostly tacos and burritos with tater-tots; not as a side, but on the burritos/tacos. Also, when opening a quasi-Mexican restaurant, using the most Anglophone name possible is a poor marketing decision.
I made three excursions down to the Twin Cities while I was in the great white north. My friend Ann Zimo, who studies at the University of Minnesota, was kind enough to show me around Minneapolis one day. We checked out the first cataract of the Mississippi, ate some good Vietnamese and Ethiopian food, and generally took in the town.
My second visit was during my marathon trip to Missouri for a job interview and home for a weekend. During a lengthy layover between the Missouri and North Carolina legs of the trip, I made my way to downtown St. Paul. The city is very nice, with a very different waterfront on the Mississippi than the raging torrent in downtown Minneapolis. St. Paul also has a beautiful cathedral dramatically situated on a hill overlooking the center of the city, as well as the nice state capitol.
My last trip to the big city was for a Twins baseball game, arranged by Ann. We took in the came from the leftfield seats of Target Field, and watched the Twins get beaten by the Philadelphia Phillies. The stadium is very nice and modern, but has none of the character of Wrigley Field. The fried cheese curds, a local Minnesota delicacy, were a nice touch however.
Overall I enjoyed my time in Minnesota. The Twin Cities are really great, and I would definitely live there, even with the arctic winters. I also really liked St. John’s. I am not sure I have much else to say positive about the state. It is an unusual place where the prairie meets the eastern forests, and where the Midwest meets… Canada I guess? Anyway, a great experience all in all.