About Us

Our Story

Founded in 1997 as Saint John’s Arboretum, we are grounded in a vision for high quality outdoor and environmental education and a strong connection to place. Fr. Paul Schwietz (1952-2000) was the founding director whose work to preserve and restore the abbey lands, led to their dedication as an arboretum with a vision “to celebrate and preserve the unique beauty and richness of God’s creation in central Minnesota, fostering the Benedictine tradition of land stewardship, education and environmental respect.”

The formalization of the education program in 1997 was the start of nearly two decades of growth of the education programs that led to more than 8,000 prek-12 students, more than 5,000 CSB+SJU students and more than 5,000 community members participating in the program annually. During this time the student-led Peer Resource Program and Outdoor Leadership Center were added to our student programming, significantly increasing our outreach to college students through adventure trips, Collegebound, team-building and other outdoor recreation events.

The growth in the breadth and scope of the educational programs led to a re-defining of the educational activities – the program – as Saint John’s Outdoor University and the land stewarded by Saint John’s Abbey – the place – as Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum.

Operating in part like a nature center, with community programs for families and field trips for preK-12 students, and in part like a professional/career development center for college students, Saint John’s Outdoor University has many opportunities for college student employment, internships and service-learning opportunities in addition to the volunteer and education opportunities for the community.

The gift of the landscape of Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum – lakes, prairies, wetlands and forest – and the conservation efforts of Saint John’s Abbey, make our work possible.

The legacy of Fr. Paul lives on today in Saint John’s Outdoor University’s education programs and the continued conservation and stewardship efforts in the 2,500-acre Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum. We are supported by Saint John’s Abbey, Saint John’s University, the College of Saint Benedict and hundreds of individuals who give annual membership donations in support of our mission.

Our Shared Vision

Saint John’s Outdoor University and the Abbey Arboretum celebrate the unique beauty and richness of God’s creation in central Minnesota and foster the Benedictine tradition of land stewardship, education, and environmental respect.

Saint John’s Outdoor University Mission

Saint John’s Outdoor University provides environmental and outdoor education
in pursuit of:

Abbey Arboretum Mission

A Brief History

1856Saint John’s University is founded by Benedictine Bavarian Monks who came to central Minnesota to minister to the German Catholic population of the area.
1858Abbot Wimmer, Abbey land visionary, purchases for first 1,280 acres of land using Military Land Warrants.
1866After moving between St. Cloud, St. Joseph, and “Indianbush,” the Abbey settles at their current site.
1868First bricks are made from Saint John’s clay for Abbey buildings.
1872Stella Maris Chapel is built on Lake Sagatagan to honor Mary, the Mother of God. The chapel was previously only accessible by boat. 
1884The Abbey first uses the land for farming. They own 1,000 acres, 125+ cattle, and produce 5,000 bushels of grain.
1888The first powerhouse is built. Each year, 1,000 to 3,000 cords of wood are burned and used for fuel. By 1900, most of Saint John’s forests are cut down.
1892On the evening of June 27, a tornado damages and destroys many buildings and trees.
1894Monks complete a 130-acre conifer plantation, compromised of seven spruce species. This planting is the oldest plantation of trees in Minnesota.
1933The Abbey’s then-2,438 acres are set aside as a state wildlife refuge.
1935Five tame deer are introduced.
1951The Abbey joins the tree farm program, which works to preserve wood, water, wildlife, and recreation.
1988Habitat Restoration Project (150 acre area including prairies, oak savanna, and wetlands) begins with the construction of two earthen dams to hold back water in ditched wetlands.
1989Wetland restoration: 50-acre pool and 10-acre marshland formation, which brought 137 different bird species.
1991As a part of the Habitat Restoration Project, about ninety species of prairie grasses and flowers (4,800 plants) are planted to restore tall grass, wet prairie, and dry prairie on fifty acres where crops had grown.
1997Father Paul Schweitz, OSB, founded the Saint John’s Arboretum, designating the Saint John’s Abbey land as a natural arboretum with a mission of education, conservation, and research.
2000May 4: Arboretum founder Fr. Paul Schwietz dies of heart failure.
2002Forest Stewardship Council certifies Saint John’s Arboretum as “well-managed” under its Smartwood audit, verifying that Saint John’s grows and harvests its trees sustainably.
2002Saint John’s Arboretum initiates comprehensive preK-6 Environmental Education Field Study Program in cooperation with local school districts, reaching 2,463 preK-12 students in addition to 80 CSB+SJU students and 727 community members with education programming.
2011Arboretum programming grows substantially in ten years, recording 8,232 preK-12 students, 5,261 CSB+SJU students and 5,137 community members with education programming. 
2012Saint John’s Arboretum divides into two entities, reflecting growth in its programs and the Abbey’s land stewardship. The first entity – the 2,500 acres of land, prairie, oak savannah and forest owned by Saint John’s Abbey that surrounds Saint John’s University – becomes known as Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum.
2013The second entity, Arboretum programming, is named Saint John’s Outdoor University – which provides outdoor and environmental education. 
TodayOutdoor U and the Abbey Arboretum continue to lead environmental and outdoor education and land stewardship initiatives on campus and in the community.