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Campus & Community Music

New Abbey Woodworking facility makes room for organ building

Saint John’s Abbey Woodworking and Pasi Organ Builders were both looking toward the future, trying to figure out how best to ensure their time-honored handmade crafts were passed down to ensuing generations.

So, it only made sense to join forces and work toward that common goal.

Hence, the Work of Our Hands Project, a capital campaign of Saint John’s Abbey that has led to the construction of a $12.3 million, 30,000-square foot facility scheduled to open this fall.

The monks of Saint John’s Abbey formally approved construction in 2022. Once finished, the new Abbey Woodshop will become the home for not just Abbey Woodworking, but for a new organ building workshop that will build pipe organs and help to train the next generation of organ builders.

Organ builder Martin Pasi is among a small group of world-renown builders who specialize in building traditionally informed mechanical action organs. He is shifting his base of operations from Roy, Washington – located south of Seattle – to the new facility in Collegeville, which will also feature workspace for Abbey artisans like acclaimed painter Fr. Jerome Tupa O.S.B and others.

The tradition and work of Pasi Organ Builders will soon join Abbey Woodworking under a new banner: Saint John’s Abbey Organ Builders.

“We’ve been in (our current) building since 1903,” Abbey Woodworking director Fr. Lew Grobe O.S.B said. “In the interest of safety, efficiency and to facilitate additional space, a new woodshop has been our dream for quite some time. But we never quite got enough momentum to get one built.”

The momentum changed when Pasi came to Collegeville to install the expansion of the pipe organ in the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, which was completed in 2020. This project added nearly 3,000 new pipes to the original instrument. The majority of these pipes were made at Pasi’s shop in Washington, but a number of the larger wooden pipes were constructed in Collegeville by Abbey Woodworking.

“I was there for seven months installing the organ, giving me time to learn about the area and get acquainted with Saint John’s,” said Pasi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1981, starting his own company in 1990. “I got to know some of the monks and learned of their dream to build a new woodshop.  They asked me what I thought.

“I thought it over for a few days and it hit me that this would also be a wonderful and ideal place for organ building. I’m getting older. I’m past retirement age, and I had already been wondering about what to do with all my stuff and my knowledge. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a facility where you can help educate the next generation of organ builders.

“Because there just hasn’t been enough of that happening.”

So Pasi pitched the idea of somehow combining the art of organ building with the work of Abbey Woodworking and the idea of the shared facility took root.

“Other monasteries might not have the ability take on the risk of doing something like this, but if you look at The Saint John’s Bible, HMML (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library) or MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), Saint John’s has long been an incubator for such projects,” Grobe said. “A place to give birth to these kinds of ideas and nurture them out into the world.

“I think our community saw a real synergy of things we care deeply about and hope to pass on. We saw ourselves as a place that could do this – build a shop that would not only be able to fulfill our woodworking needs, but also provide a space for building world-class organs. There’s a lot of crossover between organ building and woodworking, activities that can share space within the shop. But we’re still providing space for dedicated organ building or woodworking. For instance there will be 38-feet tall room for assembling an organ before delivery.”

The facility will also include a small showroom at the front entrance.

“We’ll now have a place to welcome guests and speak with people about our traditions and the value of manual labor at Saint John’s,” Grobe said.  “About how we sustainably harvest trees from our own arboretum, dry them in our own kiln and then build much of the furniture that you see on campus.

“The pottery studio is a great space offering such hospitality, but right now, when guests walk into our building, they’re right on top of carts of wood and buzzing machines. Our new space will help share what we do with the wider community.”

Pasi and the new team move to Central Minnesota this September to begin work on Saint John’s Abbey Organ Builders Opus 1, a large new organ for a Catholic church in Kansas – a project that will occupy the next two years.

“I’m really happy,” Pasi said. “I’ve been watching the (construction) webcam (on the Abbey Woodworking page) every day and I’m just amazed at how it’s coming along. It’s still hard to believe this is happening, even though it’s close to becoming an absolute reality.

“This is going to be a first-class facility. We’re going to be able to hold workshops and conventions here. All kinds of things involving not only organ building, but organ music as well. The possibilities are endless.”

Grobe said the same is true on the woodworking side.

“The biggest thing for is me is that we’re making an investment to carry the spirit of craft into the future of Saint John’s,” he said. “Saint Benedict elevates manual labor as a vital aspect of the monastic vocation. We hope to honor this tradition by our efforts, reconfirming the dignity of manual craft and ensuring continued support of hand work in this monastery, on campus and beyond, well into the future.

“It’s an exciting thing for the monastic and wider Saint John’s community. May God continue to bless these efforts, our many supporters and benefactors and our future work.”

Abbey Woodworking space

Much remains to be done, but the Abbey Woodworking space at Saint John’s is nearing completion.

Fr. Lew Grobe

Fr. Lew Grobe shows some of the progress on the new Abbey Woodworking space at Saint John’s.