Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Laser Monks: Entrepreneurs Help a Sparta, WI, Trappist Monastery Thrive

At the ringing of a bowl-shaped bell, five monks at a remote monastery congregated in the chapel here for the fourth of their seven daily rounds of prayer, their voices murmuring a Gregorian chant in Latin.

An abbey in Sparta, Wis., has seen its revenues soar.

At the same time, in a nearby house on the monastery’s property, the phone was ringing in a small office where two women and an office manager run a multimillion-dollar business that generates the money to run the monastery.

“Good morning, LaserMonks. Greetings and peace,” answered the office manager, Victoria Bench, a patient sort who often hears callers remark, “You don’t sound like a monk.”

Monks in Roman Catholic monasteries are expected to support themselves, balancing a life of prayer and work according to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict. Some monasteries make cheese, others make jam, chocolate or wine.

The monks here at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank make their money from the sale of ink and toner cartridges, and little of the labor is their own.

The Rev. Bernard McCoy, the monastery’s superior, had the idea for LaserMonks.com. But the enterprise really took off when the monks turned it over to two entrepreneurial laywomen who originally came from Colorado to give them advice and never left.

“We feel we’re stewards of their business, and we really put bread on the table,” said one of the women, Sarah Caniglia, sitting in their impeccably organized office amid lighted candles and CDs of Gregorian chants. “I feel like the head of a family, but the boys are grown up and they’re never going to get married.”

Father McCoy, who at 42 already has a monk’s bald pate and fringe of hair, said: “Our life as monks is not set up to sit around and answer phones. We’re supposed to be a little removed.”

“We are professional pray-ers,” said Father McCoy, who wears a white habit, a long black smock called a scapular cinched with a leather belt and, on his feet, knock-off Crocs. Some days he wears a T-shirt that says, “Ask me about my Vow of Silence.”

This is not the only monastery to employ laypeople, but the monks and the women here have a surprising symbiotic relationship. The monastery had tried various self-supporting enterprises before: moving and rehabilitating houses scheduled for demolition, growing shitake mushrooms, developing a golf course and corporate retreat center.

One day, the monks were in the midst of a big report on the golf project when the printer ran out of toner and Father McCoy went to order more. “I thought, that’s way too much for a bunch of black dust,” he said.

He discovered it was possible to buy new and recycled cartridges at a fraction of the cost charged by office supply companies. He started LaserMonks in 2002 with the idea of marketing to charitable groups, but the business expanded so fast that soon they were scrambling to keep up.

Meanwhile, Ms. Caniglia and Cindy Griffith were looking to sell their online ink and toner business, based in Loveland, Colo., and called Father McCoy to see if LaserMonks wanted to buy their database. They hit it off, and soon the women were driving to rural Wisconsin.

“I was scared to death,” said Ms. Griffith, 50, a Web designer and divorced grandmother who is not Catholic. “I’ve been to Catholic weddings, but I don’t know anything about monks. Do they talk? What do I do when they pray? Do I sing this stuff? I don’t know Latin.”

The women stayed in the monastery’s hermitage overlooking the Mississippi River. Two weeks became two months, then six. The women shared their skills at database management and Web design, but also ideas for the future of LaserMonks. The monks gave the women a taste of a life that was contemplative, balanced and simple.

“I was a yuppie, I wanted to make a lot of money, drive a nice car and belong to a tennis club,” said Ms. Caniglia, 41, who is Catholic. “I’ve just learned to simplify my life, and I get joy out of seeing the stars at night, walking the dogs.”

The women now live on the top two floors of a small house on the monastery’s property, above the office and overlooking fields of soy and corn. Ms. Caniglia and Father McCoy send e-mail messages to each other daily, but meet only every three weeks. The women and monks all come together on feast days and holidays.

Ever entrepreneurial, the women also sell products made by other monasteries, including chocolates, pralines and a barbeque sauce called “Burnt Sacrifice.” They sell Benevolent Biscuits, dog treats the monks here make on cookie trays in the monastery kitchen.

Their latest product is a laser printer cartridge made with soybean oil instead of petroleum. Holding up a newly printed page, Ms. Caniglia said, “It’s environmentally safe, the print is great,” and it produces more pages per cartridge than an oil-based cartridge at a lower price. “It’s a no-brainer.”

LaserMonks took in $4.5 million in revenue last year, she said. Expenses and the cost of products are 80 percent, leaving 10 percent for the monastery and 10 percent for charities. The two women made about $60,000 combined. (“It isn’t about the money,” Ms. Caniglia said.)

While LaserMonks hums along without monks, the monks are free to develop their talents and hobbies. The Rev. Robert Keffer paints and sculptures, Brother David Klecker sews vestments and takes photographs, Brother Joseph Watson does woodworking, Brother Adam Mathews tends the property and Brother Stephen Treat writes a blog.

Standing at his easel in a sunny studio, Father Keffer dabbled at a painting of St. Bernard, whose hair looked a bit too 1980s blow-dried.

“Professional artists come visit,” Father Keffer said, “and they say to me, ‘You’re in my idea of heaven.’ ” New York Times

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