|The making and keeping of a beautiful campus
By Lisa Strandberg
|The Shrine of St. Mary – one lovely corner that is evidence of a thoughtful approach to the campus environment.
When you’re a priest, Holy Week is a tough time for writing weighty letters. Yet that’s just what Father Bernard Pennings, O.Praem., sat down to do on Holy Thursday 1897. He had important news for Abbot Augustine Bazelmans, O.Praem. – news he worried his superior in Berne, Holland, might already have heard from another source.
Pennings had entered negotiations with the Diocese of Green Bay to purchase land for the Norbertines’ first permanent U.S. canonry. Three days before Easter, he took up his pen to sell the abbot on the idea, largely through the lens of beauty:
“The property consists of a church (very lovely), a rectory and a Sisters’ house, with a school; in addition another house and five building lots. ... The location is splendid, right on the Fox River, between East and West De Pere, about five minutes from the main bridge; it is also very favorably situated, five miles from Green Bay, with two important railroads and an electric streetcar line.”
Photographer Mike Roemer explores a beautiful day.
In his letter, Pennings covered the nuts and bolts of the matter. The property in question cost $6,800. It included the National Shrine of St. Joseph and an associated periodical, both of which held potential to help offset the purchase price.
His logical case made, Pennings closed his letter in supplication: “... After considering all this information, I am not afraid of buying the entire property for the incumbent debt, it could be paid for in a few years, and we will not easily find anything as beautiful again. Let us pray in honor of St. Joseph that it all may work out favorably for us.”
Beauty to last generations
It’s hard to deny that St. Norbert College is a picturesque place. From historic Main Hall to the striking Mulva Library, from the flow of the Fox River to the canopy of countless trees, photo opportunities abound on campus.
The college’s physical beauty testifies to more than a century’s communal effort to bring about and build upon that beauty. Few contributed as mightily to that effort as the Rev. Anselm Keefe, O.Praem., ’16. Outfitted in the cap, camouflage shorts and combat boots that he favored from his days as a U.S. Army chaplain, the biology professor and eventual academic dean planned and supervised the landscaping of Main Hall, including the planting of the first live Christmas tree in the 1930s.
Trees were one of Keefe’s many specialties. With help from Norbertine fraters, he turned the campus, once a nearly barren swath of land, into an arboretum.
“His vision, which the biology program continues, was to use the campus as a resource for biology education as well as a showcase for native trees,” says David Hunnicutt (Biology).
Localitas, a central tenet of Norbertine life, likely guided Keefe’s efforts, says William Hyland, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies: “There’s this idea of commitment to place over many generations, and there’s nothing that shows that more than the planting of trees.”
Keefe himself never enjoyed the mature arboretum, but plenty of students and community members have. And more likely will, thanks to a recent collaboration by Hunnicutt, Jordan Mayer ’12, Jason Mills (Biology), Krissy Lukens ’92 (Education) and Dan Tilly (Geography).
Using a GPS, a measuring tape, an altimeter and a dichotomous key, Mayer catalogued the location, diameter, height and species of 690 campus trees to create an ArcGIS – a digitized geographic information system.
This digitized map will be used to create a campus tree tour app. Visitors with smart phones can then find “the most interesting trees around campus, whether these are the largest ones, tallest ones or ones that have significant meaning to the college,” says Mayer, a geology and environmental science major.
Hunnicutt adds, “The ultimate goal, in addition to allowing for self-guided tours, is to produce a web resource that could be used by local elementary and middle schools for science education.” That goal brings beauty and learning together, just as Keefe intended.
Of course, there’s much more to the campus than trees. Grounds manager Dean Kumbalek (Facilities) knows that better than most.
For 15 years he has walked or biked St. Norbert’s 108 acres of land and nine miles of sidewalks, attentive to the need for shoveling, salting, mowing, planting, weeding, fertilizing and repair. Fortunately, the often office-bound Kumbalek has backup on his sizable beat.
“I’ve split campus up into three areas because I have three full-time people, and they basically are my eyes out there,” Kumbalek says. A fourth part-time groundskeeper and about eight summertime student employees round out his crew.
To set their priorities, Kumbalek watches the weather, tracks campus events and keeps plenty of white paint on hand for marking the athletic fields. His involvement in keeping the campus beautiful requires that he balance routine maintenance with responsiveness.
“I have a yearly calendar and I break each month up into weeks, and I break the weeks up into days,” Kumbalek says. “It really is a matter of doing the things that are absolutely most important to do.”
The grounds team also cares for the shoreline, revitalized by new riverfront student housing, docks and green space around the Campus Center. “The river was something the campus had its back to for decades,” Hyland says. “I think of this as a campus on a river now, as opposed to a campus facing in from the river.”
An interesting confluence: Pennings’ home abbey in Berne also sat on a bend in the River Maas, much like the bend in the Fox that hugs the St. Norbert campus. When Pennings and his confreres beheld the place, “it must have resonated with them on a very deep level,” Hyland says.
Embodying a beautiful mission
The college’s Norbertine heritage resonates with students as well, especially given changes in the last decade. New buildings like the Mulva Library are not just beautiful; thanks to a policy formally adopted by the board of trustees in 2000, they’re designed to reflect the college’s Catholic, Norbertine traditions.
The policy calls for up to 5 percent of the budget for each new building project to fund mission components, says the Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., ’84 (Mission and Student Affairs). “Early in the design of new buildings, we’ve said, ‘Where is the mission, and how is it going to be incorporated?’ ”
One example: The upcoming renovation of John Minahan Science Hall will add an atrium on the same axis as Old St. Joseph Church, offering those entering JMS a view of the college’s oldest and most sacred building. Design elements of the building will likely reference the work of Norbertine scientists.
“There are different ways to pass down a heritage. One way is to talk about it, to read about it, but another way is to physically embody it,” Hyland says.
Doing so with an eye for beauty requires teamwork. Sara Tilque (Facilities), project designer, says she collaborates with the primary users of a space as well as her maintenance, housekeeping and mechanical-systems colleagues to determine what a new or renovated room will look like. “Depending on the size and scope of the project, we may also involve a member of the art faculty, and also a member of the office of communications,” she says.
Discovering beauty through art
The incorporation of missional elements in Michels Commons is indicative of cross-discipline collaboration. Brian Pirman (Art) scoured historical photos of the college, catalogued for decades by retired library director Don Pieters ’49, to create four 7.5-foot glass panels that capture life at St. Norbert from the 1920s to the present. The intent, Pirman says, was “to hold on to that piece of history and have people who’ve been through it recall what it was like.”
For every obvious element of beauty at the college, “there are things that are hidden here, too,” says the Rev. Jim Neilson, O.Praem., ’88. During his visual tours of campus, he calls students’ attention to the college’s highest point, the cross atop Old St. Joseph Church, to point out the heart at its center. Most have never noticed it before.
“I take pleasure in introducing that which is perfectly present but perhaps unseen,” Neilson says.
Neilson has been integral in marrying mission and aesthetics, to the benefit of students. “As far as beautifying the campus, he’s a star,” Pirman says. Tilque, who worked with Neilson to renovate the reflection room in Mary Minahan McCormick Hall, adds: “He has a keen sense of what is going to appeal to the students while still incorporating an atmosphere that is going to be mature and contemplative. That’s what they need. That’s why they’re here – to grow.”
Helping students grow through visual literacy is a key goal of college curator Shan Bryan-Hanson (Art). As the primary steward of the college’s art collection, she tends to the pieces on display across campus as well as those in storage on the lower level of the Bush Art Center, ensuring that each will inspire and educate students for generations.
Like the art collections at most colleges, St. Norbert’s began organically, Bryan-Hanson says. “Some pieces were acquired through donation or purchase, and after a while, the base of a collection was established.”
In 1986 Donald Taylor became the college’s first curator. Bryan-Hanson succeeded him upon his retirement in 2011. Her charge: to expose the college community to great art while simultaneously conserving it.
“In the museum and gallery world, we talk about the balance between preservation and access,” Bryan-Hanson says. In other words, while art must be seen to be appreciated, it sometimes must be cloistered for its own protection.
Striking that balance is a delicate business, and one in which Bryan-Hanson hopes to enlist some help. She’s at work on a grant to fund an expert survey of the college’s art conservation needs.
“The goal of the process is how to prioritize what we need to do to preserve the collection,” Bryan-Hanson says. “That might mean we need to be monitoring relative humidity in the galleries better, or maybe we need to rotate the pieces on campus more often to better preserve the works.”
Bringing the campus beautifully to life
Of course, well-preserved art, elegant interiors, mission-infused facilities and park-like grounds only set the stage for the college’s true beauty. As April Beiswenger (Theatre Studies) puts it: “All of our lovely spaces on campus are lifeless hulks until they are completed by the human figure. Our surroundings are shaped, sculpted and fulfilled by the performance of the inhabitants.”
Formal performance has played a role in the life of the college since the Keefe era, when the priest’s broad-ranging interests saw him founding a glee club, orchestra and the College Players – for which he directed 60-plus productions during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. The tradition that began with him continues today with a growing program of large- and small-scale musical and theatrical performances that bring life and, yes, beauty to the college.
But Beiswenger looks beyond these productions when she considers how performance beautifies the college. She says: “Life is a performance, and everything we do has a performative aspect. It is through this performance that we become a living part of the campus’s panorama.”
Tilque similarly sees her designs as only the backdrop to the real beauty of St. Norbert: “If you spend a lot of money on a beautiful space and no one’s using it, it’s hard to say that was successful. What it boils down to is, is the space being used? That says a lot. It really does.”
Pennings would no doubt be satisfied that the beautiful parcel of land his order purchased 115 years ago has been put to good use. Says Hyland: “If you’re committed to being in a place over time, you tend to beautify it over time and see new possibilities. That’s exactly what’s happened on this campus.”