The Massachusetts economy may be hurting, but it had little impact on the bakery run by the nuns at St. Scholastica's Priory. The sisters, fulfilling a mandate that they be self-sufficient, did so well they were forced into a choice: prayer or profit.
Prayer won."We couldn't keep up," said Mother Superior Mary Clare. "There's a great demand for it, but to keep up, to make a profit in today's automated world, we'd either have to produce so many that it would be destructive to our life of prayer or else go under."
The decision of the contemplative Benedictine order was reached unanimously at a meeting last month, Mother Mary Clare said.
Just before Christmas, the priory stopped using nine part-time workers from the community and trimmed 120 stores from its delivery list, a market that stretched from nearby Worcester to Cambridge, 45 miles to the east.
Mother Mary Clare won't disclose any financial information, but the bakery provides the main income for the 20 nuns, who also have a small publishing enterprise.
"Prayer is our main work," she said. "Actually, prayer is interrupted by our work, not the other way around. Work is fitted into two free time slots, between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
On a recent December day, all was quiet at the bakery, which is in a green-sided building tucked among the trees lining Petersham's Main Street. The priory proper consists of two buildings of gray and brown stone that evokes abbey architecture.
The bakery was set up five years ago.
"The fruitcake orders are overwhelming. They're not ordinary fruitcakes, they are our own special recipe and they don't have any of the preservatives," Mother Mary Clare said.
After a write-up in Yankee Magazine, weekly orders for goods were topping the thousands, many for area stores and supermarkets.
But now the priory fills only a few store orders and concentrates on a mail-order business, a workload the nuns say is easier to schedule and doesn't require the volume of wholesale.
"Many people have been phoning and writing and saying, `Well I'm glad to hear that we can get it through the catalog,' " Mother Mary Clare said.
"It's not an intrusion on our contemplative life the way the other is," she said.
The more relaxed pace left nuns feeling relieved, she said. "We realized this was the direction God wanted us to take. There was great peace and unanimity."