Woodworking monks and organ builder come together

The Saint John Abbey Woodworking shop and the Pasi Organ Builder company are combining their forces to continue producing woodworking and organ building while passing along their skills to future generations. 

Photo By Saint John Abbey Woodworking

"As there are craftsmen in the monastery, let them practice their crafts with all humility," which is the rule of Saint Benedict (chapter 57).

Such is the case with Saint John’s Abbey Woodworking, a 160-year-old woodworking shop within Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The shop was looking to ensure their skills were passed down to ensuing generations.

As it happens, so was Martin Pasi owner of Pasi Organ Builders. So, they joined forced to work toward that common goal. This collaboration led to the Work of Our Hands Project.

The Work of Our Hands Project is a fundraising campaign of Saint John’s Abbey that has led to the construction of a $12.3 million, 30,000-square foot facility scheduled to open this fall.

The monks of Saint John’s Abbey formally approved construction in 2022. Once finished, the new Abbey Woodshop will become the home for not just Abbey Woodworking, but for a new organ-building workshop that will build pipe organs and help to train the next generation of organ builders.

According to the Abbey Woodworking, organ builder Martin Pasi is among a small group of world-renown builders who specialize in building traditionally informed mechanical action organs. He is shifting his base of operations from Roy, Washington – located south of Seattle – to the new facility in Collegeville, which will also feature workspace for Abbey artisans like acclaimed painter Fr. Jerome Tupa O.S.B and others.

The tradition and work of Pasi Organ Builders will soon join Abbey Woodworking under a new banner: Saint John’s Abbey Organ Builders.

“We’ve been in (our current) building since 1903,” said Abbey Woodworking director Fr. Lew Grobe O.S.B. “In the interest of safety, efficiency and to facilitate additional space, a new woodshop has been our dream for quite some time. But we never quite got enough momentum to get one built.”

The idea for a collaboration began when Pasi came to Collegeville to expand the pipe organ in the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, which was completed in 2020. This project added nearly 3,000 new pipes to the original instrument. The majority of these pipes were made at Pasi’s shop in Washington, but a number of the larger wooden pipes were constructed in Collegeville by Abbey Woodworking.

“I was there for seven months installing the organ, giving me time to learn about the area and get acquainted with Saint John’s,” said Pasi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1981, starting his own company in 1990. “I got to know some of the monks and learned of their dream to build a new woodshop.  They asked me what I thought.

“I thought it over for a few days and it hit me that this would also be a wonderful and ideal place for organ building. I’m getting older. I’m past retirement age, and I had already been wondering about what to do with all my stuff and my knowledge. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a facility where you can help educate the next generation of organ builders.

“Because there just hasn’t been enough of that happening.”

So Pasi pitched the idea of somehow combining the art of organ building with the work of Abbey Woodworking and the idea of the shared facility took root.

“Other monasteries might not have the ability to take on the risk of doing something like this, but if you look at [other projects, such as] The Saint John’s Bible, HMML (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library) or MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), Saint John’s has long been an incubator for such projects,” Grobe said. “A place to give birth to these kinds of ideas and nurture them out into the world.

“I think our community saw a real synergy of things we care deeply about and hope to pass on. We saw ourselves as a place that could do this – build a shop that would not only be able to fulfill our woodworking needs but also provide a space for building world-class organs. There’s a lot of crossover between organ building and woodworking, activities that can share space within the shop. But we’re still providing space for dedicated organ building or woodworking. For instance, there will be a 38-inch tall room for assembling an organ before delivery.”

The facility will also include a small showroom at the front entrance.

To donate to the project, click here.


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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).