The Institute’s history is rooted in the rich ecumenical heritage of Saint John’s Abbey and University, a place shaped by the Benedictine tradition of worship and work that predates divisions of the Christian church. More than 200 monks call Saint John’s Abbey home. For a millennium and a half the Benedictine tradition has placed a strong emphasis on community and hospitality, with common prayer at the heart of the day.
In the late 1950s Saint John’s University added a course in Protestant theology to its curriculum. In a move unusual for that time, the Abbey sent a monk, Kilian McDonnell, to Germany to study at a number of ecumenical institutes and universities, including Trier, Tubingen, Munster, and Heidelberg. Father Kilian’s trip also included research in Paderborn, Geneva, Paris, Oxford, and Edinburgh. Upon his return in the mid-1960s, he developed a vision for an American center of scholarly research to nurture the best of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theology. This center would be grounded in the Benedictine rhythm of worship and work in community.
Kilian McDonnell was supported in his studies and later plans by businessman/philanthropist Patrick Butler and his wife, Aimee, of Saint Paul. This relationship was the beginning of a tradition of collaboration between ordained and lay Christians that characterizes the Institute’s board of directors to this day.
Another defining feature of the Institute’s life has been a “sense of place,” a holistic ethos and atmosphere inherited from the Abbey. When the monks of Saint John’s set out to build the ecumenical center that Father Kilian envisioned and the Butlers made possible, they located it on the shores of lovely Lake Watab. The cry of loons was considered a fitting, even necessary, backdrop to the work to be done. The monks insisted on the graceful architecture of Marcel Breuer, who conceived of apartments walled with windows to maximize the sense of place, in the midst of natural beauty.
The first scholars arrived on Lake Watab in 1968. In 1973 Father Kilian became president of the Institute, a title he still holds. Dr. Robert S. Bilheimer, who arrived as executive director in 1974, consolidated the resident scholars program and created a new program of summer consultations. Beginning with the inaugural consultation, Bilheimer and the consultation co-chairs, Father Thomas Stransky, CSP, and Patrick Henry, pioneered a first-person method of discourse that has become the Institute’s hallmark contribution to the ecumenical movement. Henry, who had twice been a resident scholar, was named executive director when Bilheimer retired in 1984. Donald Ottenhoff began serving as executive director in 2004 and continues in that post today. In addition to the resident scholars program the Institute began offering short-term residencies in 2004. In 2008, the Institute began hosting summer writing workshops for pastors, ministers, academics, and laypersons designed to encourage the writing and disciplined reading of serious literature that engages matters of the spirit. And in 2009, the Collegeville Institute Seminars program, an interdisciplinary, ecumenical, collaborative initiative designed to gather scholars and ministers to explore issues of importance for today’s Christian communities, was launched.