The art of survival for monasteries

In the Chama River Canyon Wilderness of New Mexico, Benedictine monks of Christ in the Desert work in silence, stitching and binding papers into one-of-a-kind blank books.

“The method of hand-binding was perfected by the monks of the Egyptian deserts in the fifth and sixth centuries,” said Father Christian Leisy, prior of the monastery. “This is a Coptic monastic art, handed down from the desert fathers and mothers of old.”

What also has been handed down from ancient monasteries to contemporary monasteries, abbeys and convents is the spirit of self-sufficiency.

“Every monastery is really on its own to make its living, and we look at different ways to make ends meet,” he said.

Providing retreats and selling gourmet foods are major sources of income for many religious communities. But some also support themselves by selling art and high-quality handmade crafts. At Christ in the Desert, Brother Caedmon Eco makes the blank books, and Father Leisy used to paint icons that are still reproduced as greeting cards and magnets. Other monks make hand-dipped beeswax candles and natural soaps from goat milk or glycerin, with oatmeal, sage, rose, lavender and other herbs and essential oils. There’s even soap made with Monk’s Ale from their brewery.

“We see all of this as a form of artwork produced in the monastic tradition,” Father Leisy said.

Work of their hands

In 1957, Cistercian Father Methodius Telnack learned the art of stained glass when the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., needed new windows and couldn’t afford to purchase them. Instead, he volunteered and found a book that got him started. Since then, the monastery has produced windows for numerous churches with commissions as extensive as 100 windows at a time. Most of the designs, he said, are in the “Cistercian ideal of simplicity.” Father Telnack, 85, is assisted by Brother Cassian and Brother Martin Tran. The apprentices make smaller stained-glass pieces for the gift shop, and Father Telnack carves figures out of Pennsylvania blue stone. Brother Laurin Hartzog makes wreaths, and Father Girard Gross practices the Japanese art of bonsai, cultivating miniature trees.

stained glass
A stained-glass window created by monks at the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo courtesy of the artist

“We live by the work of our hands,” Father Telnack said.

The Carmelite Nuns of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Salt Lake City, Utah, sell an assortment of bookmarks printed from the sisters’ original floral drawings, and prints of their sketches of the Blessed Mother and fellow Carmelite St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1990, their bicentennial year of arriving in North America, the sisters started making 20-inch dolls dressed like traditional Carmelites in brown habits, black veils and white capes.

“It’s quite detailed and very authentic with little shoes and little rosaries,” Mother Maureen Goodwin said. “It’s similar to the way we dress now.”

The special-order dolls are made from purchased porcelain parts and are dressed in fabrics that the sisters sew on a machine and finish by hand.

Benedictine Brother Ephrem O’Bryan, the public information coordinator of the Subiaco Abbey in Subiaco, Ark., learned the art of calligraphy, an ornate ancient style of writing that’s a form of visual art, from a woman who worked at the abbey and is now a Benedictine sister. Before the invention of the printing press, monks used calligraphy to copy the Bible and other sacred writings. He uses it to write quotes, scriptural verses and house blessings for framed and unframed prints that are sold in the gift shop.

Brother Jude Schmitt makes wooden bowls and vases on a lathe, and recently, he has carved wooden pieces with a computer-controlled router.

“We didn’t initially do these things as money-making projects, but they turned into hobbies that we can put in the gift shop,” Brother O’Bryan said. “There’s no big money to be made on them. They are just things that we like to do, and they are good public relations for our abbey. They also make good gifts to give away.”

Creative work

Benedictine Sister Dennis Frandrup, of St. Benedict Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., taught pottery and more at the College of St. Benedict for 32 years. She is artist in residence at the college. Now 81, she works daily at the potter’s wheel in her studio where she creates vases, bowls, covered dishes and other pieces for their gift shop. Her show, “A Ceramic Celebration: 100 Works Plus,” is at the Gorecki Gallery at the Benedicta Art Center on campus through Sept. 28.

“It’s creative, and creative work is always stimulating,” Sister Dennis said. “Hopefully, I can continue doing this until God calls me to make pots in heaven.”

Sister Donna Wojtyna, with the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh, grew up with a passion for woodcarving and other arts, and taught art in Catholic schools. Now she’s teaching individuals and groups of all ages how to carve wood and weave baskets at her studio and arts ministry, Basket Creations. Revenues help to support her community.

Sister Wojtyna also teaches and makes Nantucket-style baskets that elsewhere have sold for as high as $40,000. “These are all natural materials that are grown on the earth,” she said. “I think it’s awesome that we can use materials that God has given us for making beautiful objects that people can use and treasure. It’s a God-given blessing to work with your hands.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.