View from east, Blue Cloud Abbey, Marvin SD, July 2015, photograph by author.
I recently stayed at the former Blue Cloud Abbey, now privately-owned as Abbey of the Hills Inn and Retreat Center outside Marvin, Grant County. It’s located a short way off I-29 on the coteau looking towards Milbank in the east.
It was an experiment, to see what it was all about, and it was partly inspired by my visit in June to St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota–I wanted to see what our state’s Modernist abbey was like. I’d had a brief idea about the place from photos I’d seen, stories from friends, and a brief ‘just curious’ bit of research into the architect. It’s a far more special, tactile experience to explore while you’re living at the place, even for a short time. The abbey is expansive, almost entirely stone or stone clad. The stone on the exterior and in the church is warm and glowing and intricate. The guide of an evening history tour, on which I tagged along, thought it was limestone transported from Indiana (where their archabbey was). Then, I loved stumbling on the smaller details in the clean lines of the side altars, the red stone on the altar steps, the mid-century recessed lights, and the bubble glass in the side doors of the sanctuary that all filled out and rounded out the design. The stained glass in the sanctuary played with the light in beautiful ways. The use of a lot of green tile through the interior and the few rooms with a lot of dark, wood paneling took getting used to, but other interior features were delightful, like the molded tile in the dining room and the variety of linoleum and mosaic flooring.
The Blue Cloud Abbey was founded in the 1940s to provide support for Catholic missions to the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas. The abbey was founded by the Order of St. Benedict under the Archabbey at St. Meinrad, Indiana. It was named for Blue Cloud – Mahpiyato, an Ihanktonwan Sioux leader who supported the Church’s work. The monks worked on the missions, at area churches, studied in four rooms of library materials, quilted, ran a farm, built a greenhouse, made bread, and demonstrated hospitality by welcoming retreat-goers of many faiths. The abbey had also included a great collection of material culture and photographs at their American Indian Culture Research Center. When the abbey closed, the collection was deposited with the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, who are working on digitizing part of the collection.
The Abbey of the Hills has posted a bit on the sites’ history on their website here. (Check the tabs for ‘About: Our Story’ and ‘Explore: Tour’).
Some additional history on the architect, Edo Belli, out of Chicago, from the Art Institute of Chicago: summary, oral history interview.
And now, a selection of my photos from the trip…