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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Liturgy turns classical with orchestral Mass

Voices Feb. 14, 2018

The Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minn., rises above the city landscape, with the National Shrine of St. Paul seen in the background.   J.P. Sonnen / O.C. Travel / B.C. Catholic 

America is not famously known for its beautiful churches, but when Catholics from Canada make road trips to the U.S., they often return captivated and genuinely impressed by the churches they have seen.

One such church not to be missed is St. Agnes, located just off the interstate highway in St. Paul, Minn. Be sure to visit for the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass, an experience that is nothing short of unforgettable. 

Built in 1912, St. Agnes is a one-of-a-kind church, constructed in the south German Baroque style by immigrants who came from the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A rare sight in North America indeed, it is the only such Baroque church on the continent, reflecting the exuberance and grandeur of the German-speaking lands south of the Danube.

While some academics consider the Baroque too flamboyant or opulent, others are captivated by it and describe it as the finest display of visual arts they have ever seen. 

Baroque is important for Catholics because it was the last great corporate expression of Western religious ideals in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which gives it its internal principal of vitality. 

Baroque continues to have a genuinely international character and acts as a unifying influence both spiritually and intellectually. It gives an element of profundity and sublimity that modern culture, both in its capitalist and socialist forms, is deficient in. 

St. Agnes draws a crowd not only by its unique Baroque architecture and art, but also by its special program of Baroque liturgical music, including orchestral Masses, which has given it international repute.

Ordinarily orchestral music is something the public only hears on the radio or in a concert hall. At St. Agnes it is preserved in the original context it was written for, namely sung Mass in the Roman rite.

These orchestral Masses are the work of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, which was founded in 1955 by Minnesota native and college professor Msgr. Richard J. Schuler. Since 1974 St. Agnes has been hosting the orchestral Masses, where Msgr. Schuler became pastor in 1969.

As a professional musician with a doctorate in musicology, Msgr. Schuler believed firmly in the Church’s musical pageantry and that divine worship is a majestic solemnity that should strive when possible to imitate by the joy and exuberance of the music the adoration of the heavenly hosts.

The powerful architecture of St. Agnes matches its music. First seen by approaching visitors is its easily recognizable green clock tower, called a Zwiebelturm in German (literally “onion tower”), which soars over 205 feet into the urban skyline.

The tower is symbolic and characteristic of the south German Baroque style. In fact, nearly every church in the idyllic country landscapes of the German-speaking lands has such a tower. 

It is made of green copper, reflecting a lovely emerald colour from the verdigris patina formed when copper is weathered over time.

The shape is popularly believed by some to symbolize a burning candle, reaching high up to the heavens.

The Catholics who came to St. Paul built many ethnic churches in the area, some within walking distance from St. Agnes: St. Vincent for the Germans, St. Adalbert for the Polish, St. Columba for the Irish, and St. Bernard’s also for the Germans. 

However, St. Agnes was built for the German-speaking immigrants who came from Austria-Hungary and were familiar with its style. Many of them worked for the nearly railroad. 

The architecture, seen most strikingly in the tower, was copied from a Norbertine Abbey church in Upper Austria known as Kloster Schlägl, located near the town of Aigen.

During the dedication sermon of St. Agnes, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul remarked: “You can be proud of your church, next to the cathedral, the grandest church in Saint Paul.”

The very dimensions of St. Agnes make it noteworthy for its sheer size, with a seating capacity of 1,600. The length of the building is 200 feet, 7 inches. The width of the transept is 86 feet, 5 inches. The height of the main dome is 60 feet.

Even the floor of the nave is unique, with an incline of 3 feet, leading down to the elevated sanctuary, covered in a solid marble floor of various shades of colour. 

The interior, with its colourful decorations in plaster and paint, gives but a small glimpse of the interior splendour of other Baroque churches found throughout the world. The large choir loft, with two staircases, fits an orchestra with ease. 

Patches of red, green, blue, and violet light mark informal iridescent reflections upon the white oak pews, showering afternoon sunshine upon the faithful through the incredible stained glass windows fashioned in Munich, Germany.

The exterior is noteworthy for its white Bedford Indiana limestone walls and distinctive red tile roof. The carved inscription above the main entrance reads in Latin Porta Coeli (Gate of Heaven).

The history of the orchestral Mass at St. Agnes began during a choir trip to Europe in August of 1974. Msgr. Schuler and the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale had just performed Joseph Haydn’s Paukenmesse on the feast of the Assumption with a professional orchestra in the church of St. Peter, a city landmark in Munich. 

After the Mass, everyone stood in awe. It was an illuminating moment. Msgr. Schuler and his choir felt inspired and thus the orchestral Mass was introduced at St. Agnes.

For 44 consecutive years the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale and orchestra have continued this tradition, bringing a little piece of Austria to the American Midwest. 

The choir continues with a repertoire that includes a staggering 29 Masses sung throughout the year, except during Advent, Lent, and the summer months.

The choir sings masterworks by various artists such as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Rheinberger, Gounod, Dvorak, and others

The annual operating budget is approximately $140,000 US, the bulk of which is paid to the professional instrumentalists and soloists. 

In the past the choir released various CD recordings, including a popular Christmas CD. The power of the music proves there is as much active participation in experiencing music as in singing oneself. 

Pope Benedict XVI, when reminiscing of his boyhood memories living in Bavaria and visiting nearby Salzburg with his parents, speaks with great emotion of the beautiful orchestral Masses he grew up with in the Viennese tradition. 

When these works of musical genius were originally written, it was believed that if all the resources of musical art were used at the Baroque court in order to honour the prince, so much more should the Church make use of song and instruments to adore and venerate the Divine Majesty. 

In fact, this idea was proposed in the 1749 encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV Annus Qui, which discussed Baroque sacred music accompanied by an orchestra. In a sense, this music sprang from the duty to praise God in a musical language that was at least equivalent to what society made use of to honour the prince in royal court.

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.