While prayer and manual labor have traditionally always balanced monastic life, some abbeys and monasteries are discovering new ways to support their communities. Others are using modern technology to increase production of the items whose sale has financially sustained the monks and cloistered religious sisters for decades.
Following the Benedictine motto, “ Ora et Labora, ” that exemplifies monastic life, these devout men and women seek God through constant prayer and contemplation, and perform manual labor to support their communities.
Despite dwindling numbers of vocations in some abbeys, and aging populations, these men and women produce a variety of products, including candy, fruitcakes, jams, caskets and even dog biscuits.
Fruitcakes and prayer
At Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo., the Trappist monks have been making fruitcakes since the mid-1980s. The abbey was founded in 1950, and during the first 10 years, the community supported itself through farming, an orchard and a vineyard.
In the 1960s, the monks began making concrete bricks to help supply the demands of a local construction boom. But after about two decades, competition in the local trades industry forced the monks to explore a new means of support.
With inspiration and advice from their Cistercian brothers at The Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the monks sought the help of renowned chef Jean Pierre Augé, who was once employed by the duke and duchess of Windsor.
Augé provided the recipe and offered his assistance, and as the monks say, “God did the rest.”
The monks currently produce about 25,000 fruitcakes a year and ship the confections all over the world.
“It fits our monastic rhythm of work and prayer,” said Cistercian Father Cyprian Harrison, superior of the community. He said that the monks work two-and-a-half-hour shifts — one in the morning, the other after lunch and a short rest period, which allows the 12-member community time to gather for Mass and prayer several times a day.
“The size of the community fits the size of the business,” Father Harrison said. “Our essential vocation is to be a monk.”
Whether they are mixing batter, sliding a tray of filled loaf pans into the ovens, decorating baked confections with pecans and candied cherries, or wrapping cakes for shipping, every task is accompanied by prayer.
“Making fruitcake is not our job,” said Cistercian Father Justin Trinidad, a native of the Philippines. “It is a way of supporting ourselves, because monks have to support themselves. Our job is to pray, and therefore making fruitcake should be prayerful.”
Cistercian Brother Francis Flaherty, the abbey’s vocation director, said that as he decorates the cakes, he offers prayers for those who will be eating the confections, for world peace and for an end to abortion.
“Being a monk is a wonderful life,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as monks to pray all the time.”
“The hallmark of the Assumption Abbey fruitcake is its moistness and rum flavor,” said Joseph Reisch, the abbey’s head baker. He said that in the production kitchen, everything, including the utensils, has a “sacred purpose” as the monks make fruitcakes for the glory of God.
Soaps and ropes
At Our Lady of the Angels Friary, located a mile from Assumption Abbey on the monastery’s grounds, a group of three contemplative Franciscans make soap as a way of helping to support their small community.
The friars, members of The Interprovincial Prayer Fraternity, also make rope cords for Franciscan habits and have a small retreat house.
The soap contains goat’s milk and various botanicals, depending on the scent. The 3-ounce bars are sold at local gift shops and bookstores in the Springfield, Mo., area. “I’m trying to express where we are and what we’re about,” said Franciscan Brother Joseph Manning. “I think the bar represents the goodness of God. It’s a mixture of all the ingredients God has given us.”
In Wrentham, Mass., the Trappistine Sisters of Mount St. Mary Abbey have been producing confections since 1955. The community has 48 members from all over the world and is the largest Trappistine community in the United States.
While the sisters maintain centuries’ old traditions, last year they entered the age of modern technology when they erected a wind turbine to power automated candy-making equipment for the aging candy plant. Eventually, the turbine will provide 90 percent of the community’s electrical needs.
The sisters launched a $5.5 million capital campaign to pay for the cost of the construction of the wind turbine, a new candy production room and storage facilities, an expanded gift shop and a business office. The campaign has raised $3.5 million of the $5.5 million, and the abbey received a $225,000 grant to help cover the $525,000 cost in the design and construction of the new wind turbine.
Without the modernization, the sisters would have been forced to stop production of their confections, which include butternut munch, milk chocolate squares, dark and milk chocolate almond bark, maple walnut penuche and chocolate walnut fudge.
“We would have to find another industry,” said Mother Maureen McCabe, abbess of the community, who said that the sisters trust that God will help them to overcome the challenges that the community faces and point the sisters in the right direction.
Committed to caskets
The Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa began making caskets in 1999.
“Farming was, until then, the main source of income to meet our living expenses,” said Cistercian Father Stephen Verbest, the community’s novice and vocation director. He said that the monks still do some farming, and produce small grains grown organically for farmers who need organic feed for their livestock.
“At first we considered making office furniture, adding value to our 1,200 acres of woodland,” he said. “Then our lay manager suggested making caskets. A pilot project, cottage industry, attempt proved successful, so we committed our resources in capital and labor to Trappist Caskets.”
Father Verbest said about 10 monks are involved in the production and sale of the caskets and urns. They produce about 1,000 caskets annually and hope to increase production by 50 percent.
“People from all walks of life, rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic, young and old, in all of the continental states, purchase our caskets,” Father Verbest said.
Brian Lowney writes from Rhode Island.
From Ink to Biscuits (sidebar)
The Cistercian monks of Our Lady of the Spring Bank Abbey in Sparta, Wis., have gone to the dogs.
Already well known as the “Laser Monks,” the members of the Cistercians of the Common Observance have operated a successful enterprise for several years selling recycled ink cartridges and toner.
Benevolent Biscuits is the monk’s latest venture.
According to Cistercian Father Bernard McCoy, prior of the community, the idea for the canine confections developed when the abbey’s two dogs, a recently deceased pharaoh hound named Luxor, and Ludwig, a Doberman pinscher, walked into a discussion some monks were having with lay staff about products the community could create and sell.
“Someone asked, ‘How about doggie biscuits?’ and we all smiled,” Father McCoy recalled. The rest is history.
“The biscuits are easy to produce, and don’t require a lot of licenses,” he added. The biscuits are made from natural ingredients, and include St. Benedict’s Bacon Treats, Prior’s Peanut Butter Treats, Divinely Original Chicken Treats, Breath Mint Bones and the newest flavor, Sweet Potato Cinnamon.
A portion of the income derived from the sale of the biscuits benefits animal therapy charities.