Reuters) – Tucked off a two-lane highway in a hilly, wooded section of central Massachusetts, a group of Roman Catholic monks has embraced a centuries-old tradition they hope can sustain their aging members in a world of rapidly rising health costs.
The 60 monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey still rise at 3 a.m. for prayers and pass most of their days in silence. But when it’s time for work, a handful head down to the monastery’s new brewery, the primary outside Europe to supply certified Trappist Ale.
The venture has proven to be less labor-intensive than the monks’ other businesses, making religious vestments and fruit preserves. More importantly, they believe it could possibly generate enough money to sustain a community of men with an average age of 70 who now spend about a 3rd of their budget on health care.
“We’re trying to reinvent our economy,” said Father Isaac Keeley on a recent tour of the abbey’s low-slung stone buildings and starkly modern 30,000-square-foot brewery, nestled in a wooded property some 60 miles (97 km) west of Boston.
Work has always been part of life for Trappists, a monastic order tracing its roots to 17th Century France, with monasteries around Europe and North America selling products starting from coffins to cheese. The goal of those businesses is to herald enough cash to sustain a community of men who pass most of their lives in seclusion.
The Spencer monks debated the move into beer making for more than a decade, as more of their members aged and moved into the monastery’s 12-room infirmary, which is usually full.
“The health costs are huge,” said Father Dominic Whedbee, the abbey’s 65-year-old prior, the group’s second-ranking member. “Our infirmary is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days per week. That way we will take care of all our men for the rest of their lives, which is our commitment.”
AGING CLERGY A CHALLENGE
Supporting an aging clergy is a challenge faced across the Catholic church within the United States. While monasteries and similar religious orders operate outside the structure of local parishes and dioceses, a lot of which have paid heavy costs to settle claims of sexual abuse by priests, their members are also aging.
The Retirement Fund for the Religious, a Catholic group that acts as a final-gasp source of funding for retired monks, nuns and other members of religious orders, currently supports 34,243 religious people over the age of 70. It forecast that by 2023, there would be four times as many retired members of such orders as those who’re still working.
The fund it operates is forecast to run dry by 2026, from $8.64 billion in 2010, based on a 2012 study done for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by human resources consultancy Mercer Management.
The issue is more acute among Catholic clergy than Protestants partly because Catholic clergy are inclined to serve for longer periods and do not marry, which means they do not have spouses who will help support them, said Cynthia Woolever, a sociologist who focuses on religion and publishes a newsletter on the Presbyterian church.
“They stay in the priesthood. It’s a vow for all times, whereas Protestants have a higher dropout rate,” Woolever said. “Once you’re a priest there really is a commitment on the a part of the Catholic church that you will be supported and cared for all times.”
When the monks decided to start producing beer, they toured a lot of European abbeys, including Notre-Dame de Scourmount, which produces Chimay beer, a dark, high-alcohol brew popular with Trappist ale aficionados within the United States.
The monks from St. Joseph’s found themselves more impressed by the lighter, less-potent beers that European monks produced for their very own consumption. They call their Spencer Trappist Ale a “refectory ale” that pairs well with the simple food of their mostly vegetarian diet.
After touring breweries packed into centuries-old monastery buildings, they also decided to build a modern, highly automated brewery that requires less manual labor from the abbey’s aging monks, the oldest of whom is 99.
The brewery initially aims to supply 124,000 gallons (469,391 liters) of beer in its first year and top out at 310,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) in about five years. Sales to distributors in Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island have to this point passed expectations, leaving the monks on track to satisfy their goal of having the ability to support the monastery and its charities on the brewery’s earnings within a decade, said Keeley.