Massachusetts monks tap brewing tradition to support aging members
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 is time for work, a handful head down to the monastery’s new brewery, the first outside Europe to produce 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 can generate enough money to sustain a community of men with an average age of 70 who now spend about a third 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 a part of life for Trappists, a monastic order tracing its roots to 17th Century France, with monasteries around Europe and North America selling products ranging from coffins to cheese. The goal of these businesses is to bring in 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 a week. That way we can take care of all our men for the rest of their lives, which is our commitment.”