Women religious working "on the front lines," exposed to the coronavirus yet continuing to care…
Pandemic couldn’t stop the demand for religious goods
Producing the blueberry preserves that food personality Rachael Ray has described as being the best in the country requires a little more time, work and money during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Anything that we get from overseas has an extra two month delivery time on it,” said Cistercian Brother Brian Rooney, who oversees the production of Trappist Preserves at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
The pandemic’s economic impacts have caused the costs of manufacturing, shipping and trucking produce from West Coast farms to “skyrocket,” said Brother Brian, who added that the farms have been having difficulty finding people to pick the fruit.
“Apricots are very difficult to find, as well as blackberries and raspberries,” Brother Brian said. “Things that would normally be in stock are not in stock anymore.”
The novel coronavirus, which has shut down or crippled entire sectors of the economy over the past year, has impacted the production and sales of products that religious orders across the country depend on to support themselves. The pandemic has caused some Trappist monasteries and abbeys to close gift shops, arrange for curbside pickup, alter their production schedules and look for other ways to make up for lost income.
“I would say the pandemic hurt our brewery,” said Brother Brian, referring to his abbey’s Spencer Brewery, which produces a wide variety of Trappist lagers, IPAs and ales. Keg sales to bars and restaurants have dropped precipitously because of COVID lockdowns and capacity restrictions.
“They compensated by doing some packaging for other people,” Brother Brian said.
About 50 miles away in Wrentham, Massachusetts, the Cistercian nuns at Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey braced themselves last year for the pandemic to tank sales of their candy business.
“We closed the gift shop. We closed our retreat house, but surprisingly the people who couldn’t come to our gift shop for the Christmas gifts went online and were willing to pay the shipping. We had more online orders than we had ever had before. We are very grateful,” Cistercian Sister Christa-Maria Hofmann told Our Sunday Visitor.
Sister Christa-Maria said the abbey’s Trappistine Quality Candy is her community’s main source of income. The online orders, for now, have helped to make up for the loss of the abbey’s gift shop, which she said will remain closed for the foreseeable future.
“For the safety of our community and the safety of the people who come to us, we are still being very careful,” said Sister Christa-Maria, who is not sure that the online sales this year will be as strong as they were in 2020.
“If we are blessed again like last year, it’s a gift we will accept,” she said. “But as long as the pandemic remains, the more that people struggle, and they might not be able to buy as they did last year.”
At Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia, where Cistercian nuns have been producing and selling cheese since 1990, the pandemic stopped in-person sales at the monastery. The nuns arranged for a curbside pickup service for their customers.
“Lots of people came to pick up their cheese. That worked out okay,” said Cistercian Sister Barbara Smickel, the community’s treasurer and manager for the monastery’s cheese business, which was featured in 2015 on The 700 Club.
Sister Barbara said the Christian television show re-aired that episode just before this past Christmas, which she said helped the monastery to attract new customers and sell out its cheese inventory during the holiday shopping season.
“We got a lot of online orders,” she said, adding that the sales are enough thus far for the community to cover its expenses and to give alms for those less-fortunate who are struggling during the pandemic.
“We’ve been praying hard for all the people adversely affected by it,” Sister Barbara said.
At Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a community of Cistercian nuns in Dubuque, Iowa, sales of the abbey’s caramel candies were sluggish last spring but rebounded enough toward the end of the year that Sister Kathleen O’Neill said she is feeling optimistic about what the final sales figures for 2020 will look like.
“Our sales were excellent, but they were also later than usual, so that threw off our [planning],” Sister Kathleen told Our Sunday Visitor, adding that 80% of the abbey’s candy sales are made in the fall.
“Usually by mid-December, we’re ready to call it quits,” Sister Kathleen said. “But last year, we were still very busy shipping at that point. It was all hands on deck for shipping. It put a pretty good deal of strain and stress on us. Though it was exhausting to keep up, we were grateful for the sales.”
At St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts, Cistercian Brother Brian said he is still dealing with COVID-related complications to Trappist Preserves’ supply chain.
“People who make caps, glass, even the food producers, are all having trouble keeping us supplied,” he said. “There’s been some scrambling and some increased costs because of it. We get some of our glass from China, and because there’s such a shortage of containers now, we had to pay $5,000 extra dollars to ship a container here.”
Though the sales of sugar-based products have also been decreasing in recent years, Brother Brian said Trappist Preserves’ financials are on solid ground for now. As for trying to plan ahead amid the pandemic’s uncertainty, Brother Brian said he is tempted to throw up his hands.
“I would say that everything has changed, but who knows in what way,” he said. “It’s very hard to tell what’s going on, but we assume that God will take care of us.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.