How to partake in the fruits of monks’ and nuns’ labors

For centuries, religious men and women have creatively lived out the Latin motto of ora et labora — “work and pray” — by savvy business practices, most notably in supplementing their incomes by selling food, beer and honey.

Today in the United States exists a thriving network of goods made by religious and available for purchase to the general public, aided by a tool unimaginable to monastic medieval counterparts — the Internet.

“Monks and nuns don’t want to be idle. They are always busy. It’s part of their life,” said Amy Maloney, buyer and manager of the stores at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

“The customers and visitors who come to the shrine — they don’t know a whole lot about all these different orders and do find it fascinating there are these orders that have been around for hundreds of years and they didn’t really know about,” said Maloney. “But now … they get to learn about them and support them.”

Our Sunday Visitor has asked friends and experts to weigh in on their favorite goods — and some unusual ones — manufactured in monasteries and convents. Want to support a good cause while receiving a quality product? Read on.

Book binding

Heather Ambroson is working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Nearby in Carlton, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, Cistercian (Trappist) monks will put the finishing touches on her dissertation.

“My school has a contract with them to bind all of our dissertations,” Ambroson told OSV.

“So many hours of work went into my dissertation and it is a huge step in getting my doctorate. Having it bound by monks at an abbey makes it even more meaningful,” added the 29-year-old Catholic from Montana.

Options abound for bibliophiles.

According to the monks’ website, they “specialize in thesis, dissertation, family history, genealogy, specialty, Bible, periodical and monograph binding for individuals as well as for university and other libraries.”

If you’re looking for a dignified and elegant Christmas, anniversary or graduation gift, look no further. Pricing, binding and lettering options, and color choices are available online at bookbindery.org.

Food and drink

Maloney noted that at the shrine gift shop, food and drink are the most popular purchases.

Mystic Monk
A Carmelite brother watches as coffee beans pour out of a roaster at a Carmelite monastery in Clark, Wyo. CNS photo

“We have people that come every week and buy jams, honey and coffee,” she said, with Mystic Monk Coffee, made by Carmelite monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Wyoming, being the most popular item, since coffee is a “trend in the secular market as well.”

Coffee accessories, including presses, mugs and single-serve pods, are also for sale on the monks’ website.

Prefer to ingest your caffeine via the coffee bean’s cousin? Sample some fudge and truffles from the Brigittine monks (brigittine.org). According to their website: “The community attempts to be self-supporting through the manufacturing of gourmet confections. Each person feels the responsibility to contribute in whatever talents he has to offer or in the work to which he is assigned.”

Note: We would be more than happy to pitch in our taste-testing talents!

If you’d like to add beer, wine and snacks to your grocery list, visit monasterygreetings.com for a roundup of food and drink products. Don’t forget that cheese pairs nicely with wine. Check out the Trappist Our Lady of the Angels Monastery (olamonastery.org) for information about the nuns’ cheese made in Crozet, Va.

Another fun chocolate find is Trappistine Quality Candy handcrafted by nuns at Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts. Selections include butter nut munch, chocolate almond bark and more.

Caskets

The Benedictines at Saint Joseph Abbey in southern Louisiana have expanded a symbolic expression of their life to the outside world via caskets — one of several monasteries to put their talents to work in such a way.

“One physical symbol of the simple Benedictine life of prayer has been the pine caskets in which we monks are buried,” the website reads. “Today, in an effort to support the needs of the abbey and to help maintain its communal life and apostolates, we are beginning to make available to the general public a line of cypress caskets under the name Saint Joseph Woodworks.”

The business had a rocky start when the state challenged the monks’ right to sell the caskets. Eventually the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of Saint Joseph Woodworks to continue their craft.

The court stated that the “rules issued by the Louisiana Board of Funeral Directors granting funeral homes an exclusive right to sell caskets” were unconstitutional.

The monks’ reaction to the ruling? “Saint Joseph Abbey … hopes that our supporters will celebrate by purchasing a casket!”

Styles and prices can be found at saintjosephabbey.com/woodworks-caskets.php.

Honey

Joseph Bozik is a volunteer gardener and beekeeper at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Washington, D.C. In August, volunteers extracted about 90 pounds of honey, which has already sold out at the monastery’s gift shop.

Bozik started his beekeeping hobby in April 2006. He offered some history on beekeeping in monasteries.

“As a general fact, we know that monasteries were inherently self-sufficient and essentially agriculturally based in order to survive,” he said. “They knew that honey bees — native to Europe and Asia, but not in the U.S. — provided, besides honey as a sweetener, needed pollination for their vegetables and fruits in order to provide a bountiful harvest, and importantly, to provide a ‘seed’ source for the following year’s crops.”

Honey, in addition to being delicious, was also used medicinally.

“When applied on open wounds, it helps ‘smother’ bacteria and infection, as honey is only 18 percent water, so infectious sources cannot survive in honey,” said Bozik.

During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2010, two Franciscan friar beekeepers in Old Jerusalem took Bozik to see three hives on the rooftop of the Church of the Flagellation.

“[T]hey also took me out to Ein Karem, where the remaining 22 beehives are kept and we inspected those as well,” he said. “The friars told me they extract nearly 1,000 pounds of honey annually that is used daily in their kitchens. And honey is always on their dining room tables.”

Honey products can be found online at monasterygreetings.com

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.