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BY Mike Mastromatteo
TORONTO—A Christmas season fruitcake sales arrangement between Canada's largest pro-life group and a small order of Trappist monks is proving a modest financial boon to both organizations.
For the past 10 years, Campaign Life Coalition has acted as the chief distributor of “gourmet Christmas fruitcakes” produced by the Cistercian Monastery of Notre Dame in Orangeville, northwest of Toronto. Campaign Life is Canada's major pro-life lobbying organization. Like most pro-life groups, it relies on donations from supporters—and creative fund-raising efforts — for its long-term financial survival.
Each November, Campaign Life orders thousands of fruitcakes from the monks of the monastery. The cakes are purchased at a discount, and are sold at Catholic churches in Toronto and selected parishes in other provinces.
Proceeds from the Christmas season sales provide a much-needed financial tonic for the chronically cash-strapped organization. Campaign Life in fact, recently mailed a special letter to supporters warning that it would have to curtail some of its pro-life efforts without an immediate infusion of funds.
But a Christmas gift of sorts arrives each November when Campaign Life unfolds its Christmas cake sales program. By teaming up with the Cistercian monastery, Campaign Life provides a ready-made customer base for the monks'cake-making operation, while generating a much-needed source of cash.
“The Christmas cake sales program is a significant part of our financial picture,” says Tom Brown, coordinator of the cake sales program. “We've raised a fair amount of money over the last several years.”
Brown leads a team of volunteers who go the “extra mile” in ensuring sales success. In fact, Brown and other volunteers convert their homes into temporary cake depots each November and December. Brown is often the go from early November to Christmas eve delivering supplies to eager buyers.
The cakes, which come in two- and three-pound sizes, sell for $12 and $20 each (Canadian). They have earned a reputation for taste and quality and their arrival each November is eagerly anticipated by thousands of repeat customers.
“Under the direction of their Superior,” a fruitcake advertisement reads, “the monks mix the flour, cherries, walnuts, spices and wine to produce a fruitcake that has become a Christmas mainstay in many homes. The ingredients are all natural and the vest best possible so that you have a very moist, superior fruitcake.”
Father Marcel Gagne of the Cistercian monastery was modest in describing the popularity of the Christmas fruitcakes. “I don't think there is anything very special about our cakes,” he told the National Catholic Register. “It may be that that they are made from an old recipe from the mother of one of the monks, and that they are hand-made.”
Father Gagne said the arrangement with Campaign Life remains an informal one. “There was never any formal partnership between Campaign Life and the Cistercian Monastery of Notre Dame,” he said. “They just happen to be our main customer.”
But without Campaign Life's input, the monks would be hard pressed to reach as many customers.
“About 99% of the sales come through Catholic churches,” Tom Brown reported. “Once we get the permission of the pastor, a small army of volunteers set up booth at each weekend Mass, and the sales go forward from there.”
Although most sales take place in the greater Toronto area, Campaign Life also fulfils cake orders from customers from as far away as Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Moncton, New Brunswick. As well, hundreds of cakes go to customers in cities throughout northern Ontario.
“There is no such thing as a best customer,” Brown said. “The cakes move well in many churches, but much of the success depends on the ability and enthusiasm of the people doing the actual selling. Many pastors always welcome us into their churches each Christmas and we're always on the lookout for new parishes.”
Brown said Campaign Life sold more than 22,000 cakes last Christmas, and he is hoping for similar sales figures in 1998.
Campaign Life national president Jim Hughes said except for its ongoing appeals to supporters, the Christmas cake program remains the organization's primary fund-raising operation. He estimated that the fruitcake sales generate between $70,000 and $90,000 a year.
“The cake sale profits mean an awful lot in keeping some of our local offices open and in keeping us afloat in lean financial times,” Hughes said. “One of our supporters who had contact with the monastery thought this would be a good way of assisting our work while providing more customers for the monks. We see it as a good partnership. People who purchase the cakes each Christmas are supporting two worthwhile causes.”
Hughes revealed that the Christmas season also provides the incentive for a fund-raising venture involving the sale of poinsettia plants. “It doesn't come close to the amount raised by the cake sales, but it makes a contribution to our overall operations,” Hughes added.
One possible cloud on the Christmas cake horizon is the imminent closing of the Cistercian Fathers' monastery in Orangeville.
In October, the monks announced that due to declining numbers, the Orangeville monastery would be closed. All operations, including the annual fruitcake production, will be transferred to a Cistercian facility in Oka, Quebec.
“The move to Quebec is a concern for us,” Hughes said. “We're hoping that next year the monks will be able to produce as many cakes as we need from their new location.”
For their part, the Cistercian monks also hope their popular cake-making operation will not suffer from the move to Quebec.
“For next year, we're not certain if we will be able to sell cakes to Campaign Life,” Father Gagne said. “Because Oka will begin on a small basis, it will be a new experience of the monks there, so they will have to be careful. Once the move to Oka is completed, the cakes will be available from the monastery there, but we will have to waint until we have more information.”