Prayer, Contemplation, Study - and a Booming Business

Our former neighbors, the monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts, are well known for their Trappist Preserves jams and jellies.

Here at our Florida monastery, we run a Catholic bookstore and make clocks. (Our design features a CD for the clock face; printed on this is an encouragement to “Make Time for God.”)

Meanwhile my Internet work has earned me the moniker “Cybermonk.” And I recently learned I'm not the only monk tapping into technology to put a modern spin on the ancient tradition of monks working to support themselves.

Now there are “LaserMonks” — your source for ink, toner, fax and copier supplies!

The Cistercian Abbey in Sparta, Wis., began this endeavor in 2001. Their gross revenue was only $2,000 in 2002. In 2003 it soared to $500,000 — and, this year, they are expected to triple or quadruple that.

I immediately grew interested when learning about this. Not only was I intrigued by the monks' entrepreneurial spirit, but I also wanted to find out if I could save money on imaging supplies like their other customers. Here at the monastery, we have a laser printer and inkjet printer that we bought along with two laser printers and a photocopy machine that were donated.

All these machines work, but we use only one laser printer. Why? Because replacing the cartridges is so expensive — $80 to $100 for remanufactured cartridges for the laser printers and photocopy machine. And remanufactured inkjet cartridges aren't cheap, either. In fact, if you've ever wondered why prices are so low on printers these days, there's your answer. The sellers entice you with very affordable printers in hopes of being your ink (or toner) supplier for years to come.

It turns out Cistercian Father Bernard McCoy got the idea for his business one day when he was looking for a toner cartridge for one of his monastery printers. He was struck by how expensive it was just to buy a little “black dust and a few squirts of ink.” Father Bernard decided there just had to be a better way.

He did some research on imaging supplies and what he found shocked him: retail markups on ink supplies that reached as high as 2,000% over cost. As he explains at, he also discovered many companies that manufacture either new-compatible cartridges, or remanufactured cartridges, at a fraction of the cost of the big-name brands.

“My thoughts started racing,” he says. “‘Imagine the money we could save schools, churches and other organizations if we could negotiate some deals with the manufacturers directly and cut out the middlemen.’”

Every monastery has a monk in charge of all the temporal needs and activities of the community. As steward of temporal affairs, Father Bernard's duties include developing and managing ways to support his community's life and charities.

At the time he went looking for the toner cartridge, the abbey was considering various income-generating projects. Ideas on the table included a Shitake mushroom farm, Christmas-tree nursery and golf course or conference center. The prospect of a toner and ink-cartridge business struck like an answer to prayer, for the manufacturers were elated. Not only did they want Father Bernard to sell to schools, churches and nonprofits but also — no, especially — to businesses. After all, the monks would combine their reputation for trustworthy service and top-quality products with cheaper prices — all to benefit the monks and other charities. Who could refuse?

A college friend of Father Bernard's put him in touch with a marketing and public-relations agency in California. That led to one story after another in a variety of publications, not to mention numerous appearances on radio shows and speaking engagements. As hoped, the exposure led to “mushrooming” sales (of a nonShitake variety). Soon the abbey was scrambling to keep up with the development of its business.

I'm sure this time was as difficult as it was delightful. After all, the monks could not let the demands of their business cut into their life of prayer, spiritual reading and study. Then, in another answer to prayer, help appeared. Two ladies in Colorado had an upand-running Web site selling ink cartridges, and they wanted to sell their business. They offered to travel to Wisconsin to help the monks get their operation organized.

This led to a merger whereby these two ladies decided to reside in one of the houses on the corner of the abbey property. They agreed to handle order processing, customer service and manufacturer relations under the company name of MonkHelper Marketing. This left the monks free to focus on developing the business, and finding creative ways of using their income to help others — and praying.

Today the monks continue their tradition of hospitality online. Not only is their Web site a virtual store, but it also allows the monks to reach out with spiritual helps. Prayer requests are welcomed; reflections are offered. Father Robert, the superior, offers a humorous view of the monks' life through the eyes of the abbey mascots, an Egyptian pharaoh hound and a Doberman pinscher. A monthly e-newsletter provides useful articles and hints relating to efficient management of printing and printers.

There are other monkish touches that distinguish LaserMonks from its competitors. For example, a handwritten note of thanks and encouragement from the monks is included with each shipment. Those who phone in their orders are greeted with a cheerful, encouraging and thankful telephone service that includes their own Gregorian chant for those put on hold.

Perhaps you could buy your next ink refill from LaserMonks. If you do, you'll be supporting an ancient tradition. After all, monks copied and illuminated manuscripts, especially sacred Scripture, in scriptoriums for hundreds of years. They had to refill bottles of ink for their quill pens. So they are old hands at this!

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.