Saint Procopius: The Modern Abbey Church and Monastery

This is the fifth post in a series on architect Edward Dart by guest author Matt Seymour.

Partial side elevation of St. Procopius. Photo by author.

Although not the most famous of Dart’s designs (Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue is Dart’s most recognizable building), St. Procopius Abbey Church and Monastery is one of his most distinctive designs.  Completed in 1967, St. Procopius is located west of Chicago in Lisle, Illinois, and it is a large brick complex with varying angled rooflines set on an expansive wooded site.  St. Procopius was completed while Dart was a partner in the architectural firm of Loebl, Schlossman, Bennett & Dart.

Richard Giles, author of the book Re-Pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission, summed up the appearance of St. Procopius: “The east end of abbey church rises from surrounding woodland like a prow of a great ship, the Ark of God.”[i]  The seven-story high church portion was designed to be the tallest part of the complex and the rest of the complex tapers downward from the church.  Dart’s skill of relating a building to its site is evident in the design of St. Procopius.  His ability to bring the outdoors in is also apparent throughout the complex— the monks’ private rooms each have a large window that offer an expansive view of the outdoors.

An open stairway of concrete in the interior. During construction the concrete was poured into rough wooden forms, giving the surface of the concrete a wood-like texture. Photo by author.

The worship, office, and living spaces each occupy designated portions of the complex and they are connected by a series of corridors and stairways. A cloister garden, which offers views of the outdoors, can be found near the center of the complex.  Father Michael Komechak, who was a young monk and an architectural historian at the time, became a friend of Darts during the design process.  Komechak once stated that St. Procopius: “…conveys a spirit of Christian optimism, simplicity and order, and relates us to one another and to our environment.”[ii]  The primary building materials that Dart used throughout the 100,000 square foot church and monastery were Chicago common brick, wood and concrete. Komechak understood Darts design and respected his choice of materials and site.

A view toward the alter in the large, open sanctuary. Photo by author.

The church–which is the centerpiece of the complex–can seat 700 people in bays of pews that slightly angle toward each other, offering views of the altar as well as the entire room.  Huge clerestory windows, approximately 90 feet long and 13 feet high, are crossed with beams and a 13-ton x-shaped steel truss, 20 feet high and 120 feet long.[iii]   The light that pours in from above creates a glow against the austere brick interior and the beams create dramatic angles and lines as they cut through the light.

A small worship area is lit by a skylight, hidden from view. Photo by author.

The simplicity of the windowless interior is an example of the movement in church design in the 1950s and 60s that promoted the least amount of distractions in the sanctuary so all focus could be placed on worship.  Giles also commented on the relevance of the architecture at St. Procopius: “St. Procopius could never be described as a static building, for its architecture elicits response and demands movement, and thereby both facilitates and mirrors the liturgical action at the heart of the Abbey’s life.”[iv]  Dart designed the complex with the monks’ lifestyle in mind.

Shortly after Darts death, the Reverend Daniel Kucera wrote a letter to Darts wife, Wilma, expressing his admiration of the work done at St. Procopius:  “Seeing that beautiful building silhouetted against the evening sky always fills me with admiration and gratitude to Ed for coming into my life and the life of the community at a historic moment.”[v]  Dart profoundly impacted the monastery and its inhabitants, as well as the architectural community of the late 1960s, with his innovative design.

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[i] Richard Giles, Re-Pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission, (Suffolk, United Kingdom: St. Edmundsbury Press, Ltd., 1999), 106.

[ii] M.W. Newman, “St. Procopius, Modern Monastery in Wood, Brick and Concrete,” Inland Architect 15, October 1971, 12.

[iii] Newman, “St. Procopius, Modern Monastery in Wood, Brick and Concrete,” 12.

[iv] Giles, Re-Pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission, 121.

[v] Daniel Kucera, Letter to Wilma Dart, date unknown, Edward Dart Collection, Ryerson Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago.

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