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Sales give monasteries, convents a boost

Published: Saturday, Nov. 18 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

DALLAS — Karen Boyle discovered a place for peace and spiritual reflection by way of a wheel of cheese.

Several years ago, a friend gave Boyle a gift of Gouda cheese made by hand at Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Va. Boyle, a hospice nurse who lives in Charlottesville, Va., enjoyed the cheese so much she ordered some for her friends — and grew curious about the tiny community of 10 Cistercian nuns that made it.

After a co-worker pointed out the monastery, Boyle began to visit during her lunch break for prayer services. Now she makes a yearly, weeklong retreat at a cabin on the monastery's property, as well as frequent shorter visits to buy cheese.

"Every year," she said, "my friends ask, 'You are going to give us cheese again, aren't you?"'

Like dozens of other monasteries and convents in the United States and Europe, Our Lady of the Angels makes gourmet fare to support itself. Many operate sophisticated businesses, with phone and online ordering and credit cards accepted, but rely on traditional recipes and artisan techniques that are centuries-old.

Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo., sells fruitcakes. The Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., bakes cakes, breads and brownies.

Gethsemani Farms at the Abbey of Gethsemani was the home of the renowned spiritual writer Thomas Merton. It offers fudge, cheese and a fruitcake rated "best overall" by The Wall Street Journal. Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, makes caramels and other fine candies.

Food and wine businesses are one way to satisfy an ancient requirement written into some monastic orders' original charters. "We're called to be a self-supporting order," says Brother Raphael Prendergast, 85, of the 68 Trappist monks at Gethsemani in central Kentucky. A Gethsemani catalog says that the enterprise is inspired by the words of the Rule of St. Benedict: "When they live by the labor of their hands, then they are really monks."

For customers, the results are delicious, high-quality foods.

But the food businesses also become a link between lay people and the monastic community, a way of connecting with a reflective lifestyle that, for many busy shoppers, may seem as appealing as the food itself.

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