Brother Paul of Gethsemani Abbey: 60 Years a Monk, 35 Years a Cook

“I spend four hours a day in the kitchen. They kept me on for over 35 years. I have had this job longer than anyone. I must be doing something right.”

Brother Paul
Brother Paul )

 Brother Paul recently celebrated his 60th year as a Cistercian monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. A native of West Virginia, he noted that his father and uncles worked in the local coal mines. His home life and Catholic school years inspired him to join as a choir monk — and eventually to become a cook.

“It was in my senior year,” he recalled, “that I read the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s book called The Seven Storey Mountain with its invitation of Christ to live at a different level and to dedicate the soul to Christ. I realized love is available and it is right here.” As a result, he wanted to dedicate his life to prayer and decided entering a monastery was his solution. 

“I thought I had to go to France to become a Cistercian monk,” he said, “But I found out about this abbey. It has a formation program and you spend two years as a novice, then you take temporary vows for three years. It was 10 years before I took my solemn vows.” He added that his Catholic family was not supportive of his choice, though his mother let him attend because she thought he would come back home. “I was 17,” he said, “and now I am 79.”

Besides his daily devotions to prayer, Brother Paul has assigned tasks in the abbey. These include cooking and, more recently, gardening. But cooking has long been a community appointment, he said.

“I learned how to fry eggs from my mom,” he said, “and to toast bread on Sunday mornings. I did not learn much cooking at home, but I learned it here from the other brothers who work in the kitchen.”

His work role in the kitchen changes from day to day. He said that some days he works as the main cook and other days as assistant cook and prepares the soup and the salad. “I sometimes make up my own recipe,” he said, “but it must feed the 43 members of our community. At the community table, we usually seat 38 with possibly some members in the infirmary.”

The abbey has its own chickens and ducks, so eggs are in easy supply. Brother Paul often prepares his egg salad, a popular dish. “People love my egg salad,” he said. “I improvise in a way by steaming the eggs for 15 minutes, then chilling them in the freezer, so I can cut them into small chunks. These make a nice mix with celery, peppers, some seasonings and mayonnaise.”

Their diet is vegetarian, not vegan. Brother Paul said that they follow the Rule of St. Benedict, with no meat in their diet, though guests are served meat. The monks can eat eggs, milk and cheese. “I just made a pasta salad this morning,” he said, “and put cheese in it. We used to make cheese at the abbey but not anymore. It was too demanding because the size of our community has diminished.”

“Being the cook is my main job,” he said. “I spend four hours a day in the kitchen. They kept me on for over 35 years. I have had this job longer than anyone. I must be doing something right.”

Note: In terms of food, the Abbey is noted for its spectacular array of sweets. Shoppers should visit for some excellent gift-giving ideas.

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Asparagus Salad

Ingredients for this dish can by increased or limited according to the number of people to serve. This very simple recipe is from Brother Paul:

First, start with asparagus stems, thinly coined in a food processor, and blanched 40 seconds.

Second, mix in the following ingredients (quantity determined by what pleases the eye):

  • Black olive slices
  • Red and yellow bell peppers, diced
  • Oven-roasted red peppers, diced
  • Red onion, minced
  • Cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Feta cheese

Finally, toss in some Italian dressing, and it’s ready to serve.