Monks make money for charity

The Cistercian Order's Coat of Arms

The Cistercian Order's Coat of Arms

MSNBC recently reported on a Cistercian monastery in west central Wisconsin, Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey, that runs a very successful—and profitable—business selling printer refill cartridges and other supplies online. One of the monks, Bernard McCoy, said he got the idea to set up the business, when he was reordering ink for the monastery’s printer; he found the markup to be “sinfully high.” The abbey is home to nine monks; once their modest $150,000 operating costs are covered the remainder of their profits, about $4.5 million, goes to charity.

Customers get to suggest where profits are invested. Some of the money trains Vietnamese orphans how to use office computers. Other funds feed battered families. Part of the profits helped Joe Sanwald do something no one in his family has ever done: graduate from high school.

The monks hired the 17-year-old to build a guest cabin in the forest surrounding the Abbey. “Kids were giving me a pretty tough time since I was poor, but look at me now,” Joe says with a grin. “I’m doing better than they are!” He’s even planning on going to college.

Their business is and their slogan is “Real Savings. Real Monks. Supporting Real People.”

Monastery’s, of course, have a very long history of aiding their communities. We’ve just sort of forgotten about that and the fact that monks aren’t very good at getting themselves on TV to inveigh against popular bugaboos doesn’t help their Q score any; they tend to take a longer view of things.

The Cistercian Order was founded about 1098 and stressed returning to a strict observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Written circa 530, the rules required all monks to work to support themselves and their monastery. As the Laser Monks site explains:

In his “Rule for Monks”, St. Benedict stated that the monks were to work for their living “by their own hands”, and thus not to beg for their livelihood, from others. Hence, monastic communities are self supporting and each has a business which sustains their Abbey and allows the community to live lives of contemplation, prayer and good works. Up until modern times, the chief means of support was agriculture, but today, many other businesses and products have developed such as the making of bread, jams and candies, stained glass, art and other hand made gifts.

Last year for Christmas I received some creamed honey from another Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, and I can attest that it is excellent in quality; I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys honey. I got a box with four types in it: original, raspberry, lemon, and cinnamon. The Laser Monks site has links to the products of other monasteries and provides some information on the work that the proceeds supports.

Also potentially of interest to readers of this post is a recent Slate article on how the Catholic Church is currently trying to encourage more young people to become monks and nuns. To my surprise, they are actually enjoying success at convincing people to seek the life of contemplation.


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