Monks, fruitcakes & falling finances

It’s been hard times for the Los Angeles Times. Especially on the Godbeat. And that’s what makes this Column One from Mike Anton such a treat.

This story about the Catholic monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage has a bit of everything. Fruitcake. Monks. The California coast.

Written in true narrative form, here is how Anton opens the story:

The Catholic monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage have lived a world apart in the inspirational majesty of Big Sur for half a century. They know well the power of prayer and contemplation.

Money management is another matter.

Never did they imagine their most vexing problem would be finding a way to close a $300,000-a-year budget deficit. Or reviving a flagging fruitcake business that has helped support them for decades.

The monks are like countless American families struggling through hard times. They’re working harder but digging into dwindling savings to make ends meet. Their home is paid for, but repairs are on hold indefinitely. The viability of their Thoreau-like existence is in doubt.

“I’ll be honest: I don’t understand finances at all,” said Father Raniero Hoffman, the hermitage’s prior for the last dozen years. “Our whole way of life is beyond what society today would say is practical.”

Well, I was hooked, and I don’t even like fruitcake.

Obviously, the tragedy here is that these monks sought a simpler lifestyle. Not just pious, but minimalist. But balancing a budget is inescapable for anyone who wants to stay afloat. In this sense, the monks’ trouble is not just like millions of Americans but a lot of religious organizations during these lean times.

Anton does a great time humanizing the 15 monks who live at the monastery and also telling the story of this order’s origin.

The story doesn’t have much to say — or really anything — about to day-to-day religious activities of the monks. But I’m OK with that. I’m more interested in their bakery, which “exudes a vibe more History Channel than Food Network” and which Anton ably details.

“We need to bring the fruitcakes home,” said Mark Giulieri, a layman who was hired in April as the hermitage’s first director of operations. “But doing that is going to take modernizing the kitchen. We have to stop this death spiral we’re in. Just because we have this belief that we are preordained to be here … nothing is for certain.”

One thing the story could have discussed was how other monastery bakeries are faring. I’m not sure how common it is for monks to bake fruitcakes, but the above image is from Trappist monks in Virginia.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Maybe the main problem is the product they are selling. I’m almost 70 and when I grew up in the 1950′s none of us younger people liked fruitcake. We considered it food only old fogies could love. We formerly young are now the big consumers and as far as I can tell still have no love for fruitcake. However, our family buys a lot of cheese from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.
    Your suggestion about writers looking at other monasteries (and possibly, I suggest, other products) is a good one.

  • Jerry

    There is a nun selling baked good in our local farmer’s market presumably for her order. So I echo the question about what others are doing.

  • Matt

    Deacon John, that’s the Abby of Gethsemani. Thomas Merton is probably the one monk from there that most people are familiar with.

    Here’s their webstore:

  • Jerry N

    Fruitcakes seem to be a common item. I’ve ordered from the Trappists at Genesee in New York before. (Personally, I’m waiting for when the Trappists in America start making Trappist-style Belgian ale! They’d clean up with the beer snobs.)

  • Fr A

    The (“Brigittine”) monks of the 14th century Order of the Most Holy Savior gave up baked goods for gourmet fudge and truffles royale, and have been doing well ever since…even in today’s economy. Somehow the world’s only remaining priory of Brigittine monks manages to produce nearly 100 tons of it a year. But they could use some vocations.

  • Thomas

    The fruitcake from the Trappists at Gethsemane is actually really excellent – I had a week-long retreat there and slices of it (from loaves that couldn’t be sold due to cosmetic damage) were available at most meals. I’ve had the same appalling fruitcake experiences from other sources that many folks have had, but not with fruitcake from those monks.

  • Dave S

    I reAlize that we’ve gone completely OT Bree, but since this has turned into a critique of fruitcakes and I seem to be one of the few people who actually enjoy them, I can confirm that the fruitcakes from the Holy Cross Abbey pictured above are quite excellent, as are their “Fraters”, which are slices of fruitcake dipped in chocolate.

  • Dave S

    I mean we’ve gone OT here……darn iPad.

  • Ryan

    I get my fruitcakes from some Eastern Rite Roman Catholic Monks in the Upper Peninsula (they make loads of other goodies too). They always look to be doing good business.