Churches build communities with communal brick ovens

Community brick oven
Hamline Church member Mark Ireland arranges some loaves during a recent bread bake at the church's new community brick bread oven in St. Paul.
Richard Chin | AP

Christ said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger."

He didn't mention pizza, but a handful of churches in Minnesota are building outdoor community brick ovens to serve the faithful with fresh bread and wood-fired pizzas.

The idea was introduced about five years ago by White Bear Lake United Methodist Church, which since has become sort of a missionary for communal brick ovens as a way to build community and feed physical and spiritual hungers.

The church has helped or inspired about nine other organizations in oven-building efforts around the state, mainly at churches, but also with neighborhood associations and a theological seminary.

The person who started it all is Bryce Johnson, the pastor of White Bear Lake United Methodist Church, who has been baking bread since he was in high school.

About 13 years ago, Johnson, 61, took a class at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais to learn how to build a brick bread oven. He ended up building one in his own backyard.

In 2009, he went on a sabbatical funded by the Lily Endowment to spend two months in Italy and France to study bread baking and the history of ancient community ovens there.

Johnson said the communal ovens were a key part of village life between the 14th and 19th centuries. They brought villagers together to gossip and talk while waiting for their daily bread to bake.

Before Johnson left on the sabbatical, a church member said, "When you come back, we ought to build a brick oven on the church grounds," according to the church's website. And in 2010, that's what they did.

"We had a group of 40 volunteers," Johnson said of the three-month project.

Fresh community baked loaves
Some of the freshly baked loaves from a community bread bake in the new brick oven at Hamline Church United Methodist are displayed in St. Paul.
Richard Chin | AP

Johnson said the oven gets fired up about twice a month. The church bakes up to 100 loaves of bread in a day, which it sells to raise money for a local food shelf. The oven also has been the centerpiece of bread baking classes, and has been used to help teach homeless students enrolled in a culinary job program run by Catholic Charities.

Another church, Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis, got interested in the concept.

"They came to our church to see the oven and came to a pizza and bread event," said Mike Faust, a retired mechanical engineer from 3M who organized the White Bear Lake United Methodist oven-building project.

When Our Saviour's decided to build its own oven, "I said, 'Do you want some help?'" Faust said. He ended up working on that project, too.

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis also decided to build an oven in conjunction with the Harrison Neighborhood Association.

White Bear Lake United Methodist wanted to encourage another Methodist church in Minnesota to build an oven, so it offered a $4,500 grant as a catalyst.

The grant was awarded to Hamline Church United Methodist in St. Paul, which used the money to build an oven this summer. A couple of churches that applied but didn't get the grant decided to raise money to go ahead with oven projects on their own.

Rick Ellis, a member of the First United Methodist Church of Sartell, said a fellow church member who had terminal cancer donated $6,000 to buy materials for an oven project there. Volunteers pitched in at an "oven raising event," and got the oven built by August.

Racine United Methodist Church in Racine, Minnesota, is building an oven with member donations and a GoFundMe campaign.

United Theological Seminary in New Brighton built a community bread oven last summer to go along with its beekeeping and beer brewing community outreach programs.

"People are just utterly fascinated by it," Brian Braskich, director of community programs for the seminary, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

"All these people came to us to learn how to build them," said Faust, a 68-year-old Hugo resident who acted as an adviser on several projects. "A church in Milwaukee, that pastor came over here to learn about our oven."

"I've built five of these ovens from the ground up," Faust added. "That all came out of Bryce Johnson's vision."

It takes extra work to bake bread in a wood-fired brick oven. The night before, someone has to build and tend a fire in the oven's hearth, which will burn a couple wheelbarrows full of hardwood.

But that gets the oven hot enough — up to 1,000 degrees — to bake for hours, producing dozens of loaves of bread with the shatteringly crisp crust and "oven spring" that artisan bread makers love.

"It's a traditional art," Johnson said. "It's not convenient, but it's delightful."

The bread ovens fit well with the tradition of churches.

From the "Lord's Prayer" to the feeding of the multitudes to the Last Supper, bread has played an important role in the story of Jesus.

"There's something really spiritual about breaking bread," said Peter Kruger, a Hamline Church member and Hamline law school student who helped build and bakes in the oven there. "When you look at the Bible, the time that people are most in the community are when they are sharing a meal, and kind of the code word for sharing meals is breaking bread."

"I think the Twin Cities area is a hotbed of church-based community ovens," said David Cargo, vice president of the St. Paul Bread Club.

"Basically, we call it an oven ministry," Faust said.

When it comes to bringing together diverse groups and attracting people from outside of the church, wood-fired pizza baked in one of the community ovens has proven to be a winner.

Hamline Church, for example, has used its oven to bake pizza for students of nearby Hamline University.

"We were thinking the bread would be the draw. It's a good draw, but not as strong as pizza," said Braskich of the community pizza bakes held at United Theological Seminary.

White Bear Lake United Methodist has used its oven to serve about 900 pieces of pizza at the Manitou Days festival.

"We've learned bread alone does not draw multitudes. But pizza can," said Johnson in a TEDxMahtomedi talk about his church's oven.

Faust said he is developing a website to list oven locations and events and provide information on how to start other projects.

Church members with bread ovens say that bringing volunteers together to build an oven is as much a community-building event as baking and eating the bread and pizza.

Racine United Methodist Church only has about 100 people, said church member Jeff Goeldi. But he said contractors and suppliers in town have donated materials and services to help them build their oven. Goeldi said the city even offered space in a park as a location for the oven.

"I think it's an opportunity for everybody to slow down and look at a way of doing things that's new to us, but very old," Goeldi said.

Hamline Church member Caleb Schultz, 16, has baked cinnamon bread in the oven there and can point to the bricks he laid to help build it.

"It was cool. I'd never done that before," he said.

Football players from the Hamline University team also helped the church, hauling construction materials used to build the oven.

"We were looking for a way to provide a place for the community to gather and really slow down," said Mark Ireland, a Ramsey County District Court judge and a member of Hamline Church.

"The food that's come out of it has been really good. The bread that's come out of it has been really good, and the community will be only getting better," Ireland said.

"The bread is wonderful. It's great bread. But it's not about the bread. It's about the people," said Ross Safford, a former chef and baker and a friend of Johnson's who has taught bakers how to use the ovens. "It's been a singular blessing in my life, and I've been playing with food for probably 40 years."

An AP Exchange feature by Richard Chin, St. Paul Pioneer Press