Nuns and monks in Catholic convents around the world are busy preparing traditional foods to sell, even in countries that are rapidly secularizing.
Many monastic communities – especially those who are dedicated to contemplative living and have taken a vow of poverty – rely on the sale of cookies, fruitcakes, or even beer to pay the bills.
It’s a great way to build relationships with the people who come to their door — or, in some cases, their websites — during the holidays.
Sister Abigail is one of the ten nuns of the Perpetual Adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a group of nuns who live in secluded communities.
“We’re in the Lord’s Presence, and we always think that someone will be happy, whether they eat it or gift it, and someone will receive with joy,” said the sister whose convent produces sweets, eggnog, and its best-seller, tamales.
Monasteries must be self-sufficient financially. In countries such as Spain, many monasteries must maintain an aging and shrinking group of nuns and monks, along with monumental, centuries-old structures, according to Fermin Labarga.
Since small-scale agriculture, which supported them for centuries, stopped being profitable decades back, many have turned to craft, including the hugely popular gourmet food production, using only homegrown ingredients and recipes handed down through generations.
In her 90 years of living in Granada, Pipa Algarra has become familiar with the dozens of convents specialties. Alfajor is one of the oldest cookies, dating back to more than 1,000 years when this area was a Muslim Kingdom. This year, however, there are also sushi rolls introduced by Filipino Sisters.
The nuns make some really tasty sweets. The prayer that goes with it is also priceless”, added Algarra. She recalled, as a young girl, going to the convents to collect dough trimmings for the Communion wafers they made.
The 14 Poor Clares Sisters in Carmona Sp are a cloistered group and have to work hard to earn their bread. In their case, they make 300 “English Cakes” and 20 different sweets a week to sell on the 15th-century convent turntable, according to the abbess Veronicah Nzula.
Nzula remarked that there is a slowdown in the summer when it’s so hot down south nobody wants to take coffee breaks. The production ramps up during Christmas, as the sweets will also be sold in a market dedicated to convent goods in nearby Seville.
Nzula said, “While we are working, we pray the Rosary and think about the people who will be eating each sweet.” She was taught the recipes by older sisters, who had arrived from Kenya more than 20 years ago. All but one of her current sisters also learned them from their older sisters.
The majority of nuns and priests who prepare the dishes are quick to say that their primary mission is not to cook but to pray. Finding a delicate balance between cooking and praying requires a lot of skill.
Brother Joris, who oversees the brewery of Saint-Sixtus Abbey, Belgium, said: “We don’t brew because we live. We brew for life.” There needs to be a balance between monastic and economic life. We don’t wish to become a brewery that has a small abbey as an accessory.
The monks’ sole source of income, the beer, is therefore limited. It’s also considered one of the finest brews around the world by connoisseurs and is especially popular for Father’s Day and Christmas gifts.
In the 1830s, monks began making it to provide lay workers who were building the abbey the daily pints their contract guaranteed. Aficionados must still visit the abbey to pick up their crate. This gives the contemplative order the chance to witness the process.
Brother Joris stated, “By just existing, we remind the people that they’re still there.”
Another Trappist from the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky (where the famous monk and writer Thomas Merton lived), said the same thing: producing their bourbon-infused delicacies was just part of St. Benedict’s “ora elaborate” commitment.
“Our ideal is always to pray,” said Brother Paul Quenon. He joined the abbey late in the 1950s when the bourbon fruitcake had already been produced. And he has also worked on the recently introduced bourbon fudge.
Most of these are sold between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas when the abbey is so busy with orders that praying silently becomes difficult.
In order to maintain a healthy balance, two dozen Benedictine nuns at the Monastery San Paio de Antealtares, a 15th-century monastery in Santiago de Compostela (one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage cities), only make sweets in the mornings.
Almudena Villarino, the abbess of the convent, said: “It is not our purpose to break the balance, but rather it is to turn work into a prayer.” When I am working, I pray for these sweets to be catalysts of peace and union in the home or office they are going to.
The nuns follow the same recipe from the late 1800s to make the tartar de Santiago, their almond cake. Several decades ago, nuns would bake cakes using their wooden ovens with ingredients brought by local women. Pilgrims from all over the world, who have completed their “Camino” in the magnificent cathedral that is across the square, are now among the crowds ringing a bell at the nuns’ simple wooden turnstile.
The turnstile connects the interior with the exterior. Labarga stated that they are not disconnected.
In Mexico City, sisters prepare their famous Christmas bunuelos, flat donuts made of flour, cinnamon, and water. They also link their work with their faith. They pray thousands of Hail Marys during the Advent season as they roll out the dough or sprinkle sugar on the sweets.
Sister Abigail explained: “This is the way we live liturgy.” This is our goal in working for people outside of the convent – that we feed them, and they help us to eat.
Dell’Orto reported in Miami Beach, Florida.
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