Business Ventures Support Religious Communities

Orders Take on Innovative Endeavors

While it is common for religious to work in parishes and schools, they sometimes engage in interesting businesses to support themselves that blend well with their apostolates. The Register recently spoke with several such communities.

Caskets, Retreats and Study
St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College (SJASC.edu) in St. Benedict, La., a northern suburb of New Orleans, engages in a variety of efforts to fund its seminary and retreat center, including making caskets. The Benedictine community sells as many as 30 caskets per month, which provides a significant source of revenue for the 125-year-old abbey. It also fits in well with the overall work of the 32-member community, said Abbot Justin Brown.

“With selling caskets comes the wonderful ability to minister to people at a difficult time in their lives, when they’re mourning the loss of a loved one,” said Abbot Justin. “Some take comfort in coming to our woodshop and watching the caskets being made.”

St. Joseph’s Abbey was founded in 1889, when, at the request of New Orleans Archbishop Francis Janssens, Benedictines came from Indiana to establish a seminary. Training seminarians in the Gulf states remains the community’s primary mission, in addition to operating a retreat ministry.

Since neither is a revenue-generating activity, the community makes soap, keeps beehives for honey and operates a gift shop, in addition to making caskets.

The monks have always made their own caskets, said Abbot Justin, and, over time, requests came from friends to have caskets made for their loved ones. New Orleans Deacon Mark Coudrain, a master carpenter, assisted the monks in setting up a small operation selling caskets. Two monks assist part time with the work, along with oblates and volunteers. The new business prompted a lengthy legal battle, however. In 2007, the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors ordered the abbey to “cease and desist” selling caskets, as state law said that only licensed funeral directors could sell caskets to the public.

With assistance from the Institute for Justice, a pro bono libertarian legal organization, the abbey ultimately prevailed in 2013, when a federal appeals court struck down the law.

“The lawsuit has proven to be a blessing,” said Abbot Justin. “It generated a lot of publicity and has brought us a good amount of business.”

Selling Soap and Gifts
In 2007, the Dominican nuns of Summit, N.J., were struggling financially, particularly with the state’s mandate that each member have a certain level of health-insurance coverage. A friend of the community suggested they start producing and selling soap to help defray their expenses, and a new business for the community began.

“We planned to start with five kinds of soap, but it quickly became 20,” remarked Sister Mary Catharine Perry, novice mistress and vocations director, who oversees the soap production. “Our perennial favorite seems to be lavender soap.”

The sisters have since added hand creams, lip balms, room sprays and candles, as well as religious books and gifts. The items can be bought online at the sisters’ website (NunsOPSummit.org) or in the vestibule area of a church on the monastery grounds open to the public.

The Summit Dominican community was founded in 1919 and is located a 52-minute train ride outside of New York City. It currently has 17 sisters, ages 27 to 89, with four postulants entering the community this year. They are a cloistered community, whose main apostolate is prayer. Sister Mary Catharine explained, “We’re here first for God, to worship and pray to him.”

Among the sisters’ devotions is a perpetual Rosary, which is a part of perpetual adoration. The nuns, Sister Mary Catharine said, take turns “contemplating the mysteries of salvation through the eyes of our Blessed Mother.” Visitors are welcome to join the sisters as they sing the Divine Office (although they sit in a different part of the church).

As Sister Mary Catharine noted, “While our business helps, we would never make it a first priority. As Dominicans, we’re a mendicant order, which means we depend on divine Providence to survive.”

Hospitality for Travelers
While many monasteries offer visitors retreat lodging in guesthouses, the Monastery of the Holy Cross offers Chicago tourists a bed-and-breakfast stay. For $180 per night, visitors can rent one of two apartments, either in a church loft or in a building located alongside the monastery.

“It has been a good financial boost for us,” said Benedictine Brother Ezekiel Brennan, who oversees the operation. “We do particularly well during the summer.”

The Benedictine community (online at ChicagoMonk.org) was founded in 1988, and at the request of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, they came to Chicago in 1991. The cardinal offered the community the former Immaculate Conception Church as its new home, a parish founded to serve German Catholics in 1908 but which had closed due to the shifting population in the area. Highlights of the historic church include a new high altar, recently consecrated by Cardinal Francis George.

Today, it is known as the Monastery of the Holy Cross and is home to 10 monks, including three in formation. The community members range in age from 23 to 65. They rise at 3:30am and gather seven times daily for prayer. The public is invited to join in their daily Mass — three in the community are priests — or for their prayers.

The B&B is not merely a financial enterprise; it is a natural outgrowth of Benedictine spirituality, believes Brother Ezekiel: “It fits with our charism of offering hospitality to travelers.”

Monk Candymakers
The Brigittine Monks’ Order of the Most Holy Savior in Amity, Ore., about a 45-minute drive from Portland, was one of the first communities to sell candy to fund its operations, according to Brigittine Brother Steven.

When the community was founded by Brother Benedict Kirby in 1976, many communities were selling such goods as cheese to support themselves.

Looking for something different to appeal to a new market, the Oregon Brigittines developed recipes for and sold carrot cake and zucchini bread. They were popular, Brother Steven said, “but they had a short shelf life. One of our brothers suggested we switch to candy.”

As Brother Steven explained, “It brings in enough to sustain us and help others in need.”

The Brigittine community was founded by St. Bridget of Sweden in 1370. Members wear gray habits and are devoted to prayer and contemplation. They chant the Liturgy of the Hours, pray the Rosary and engage in spiritual reading. They are especially committed to praying for the souls in purgatory and for the conversion of sinners.

“Our lives are centered on praying to God, making reparation [for the sins of the world] and returning love for love,” said Brother Steven.

Confections can be purchased online at Brigittine.org, but the community welcomes visitors. Visitors can purchase candy and are welcome to join the monks in prayer.

As Brother Steven observed, “People like the quiet atmosphere of the monastery. It’s a chance to get away from the world.”

Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.