Times change at abbey, but the fruitcake is everlasting
The Trappist monks at Assumption Abbey in Missouri are getting old, finding it a challenge to keep the place going and bake the fruitcakes which support them. Because there are so few young Trappists, the Assumption monks are now welcoming young monks from Vietnam.
The Kansas City Star
AVA, Mo. — Off the hilly blacktop and down a red dirt drive, fog sits in the Ozark pine forest.
It’s 3:15 in the morning early. Someone pulls a rope and a bell tolls.
Inside an old building, Boniface, 87, the cook, rises from his bed. He’s a short, slight man who grew up around Chicago and will smile through a missing front tooth if you can get him to tell an Al Capone story.
Down the hall, Thomas, the mechanic, stirs. He’s 85 and spent his youth on a Wisconsin dairy farm. He still rides a bike.
Robert, 88, an Irishman from Minnesota, is up on the hill in a cabin no bigger than a shed. He probably hears the bell, but it doesn’t wake him. He’s been up since 1. He’s always up at 1.
These men came here a half-century ago, or longer, and never left. They and the other Trappist monks at Assumption Abbey chucked their early lives like shirts that no longer fit and gave themselves to God.
They pray, work, meditate, chant and make fruitcakes.
Fun? Of course they have fun.
According to abbey literature, for entertainment “there is the change of seasons, the song and flight of birds, the romping with the dogs in fresh fallen snow.”
Résumés aren’t exactly rolling in. Thus the problem.
These monks arrived here as young men, and now, though mostly spry in step and spirit, they are old. With meals still to fix, equipment to repair, grounds to tend and cakes to bake.
And no young Trappists have come to help.
For a while, it looked like Assumption Abbey, established in 1950 in these woods about four hours southeast of Kansas City, would have to close.
But help is now coming from the other side of the world.
By the end of the year, four young monks from Vietnam will have arrived at this Ozarks abbey. Four more will come in 2014. Over perhaps a decade, Assumption will change from Trappist to Cistercian order. The two share roots: Trappist is a reform of Cistercian.
Still, there are mixed emotions, said Father Cyprian, 83. “On one hand is the failure that we can’t continue what we began,” he said. “On the other, we have this place to pass along for others to carry on.”
It would be 10 years before young Trappists could come and save the day.
“We don’t have 10 years,” Cyprian said.
But don’t worry, fruitcake lovers. The plan is to carry on the world-famous Assumption Abbey tradition, even though Father Peter, the first Vietnamese to arrive, had never tasted fruitcake.
Boniface wears a red hat and bounces between stoves in the kitchen. On some days, he bakes 40 loaves of bread.
“You know the difference between a chef and a cook?” he asked as he boiled squash and eggplant. “A cook has to do his own pots and pans.
“I came here in 1954 and had no idea what I was doing when they made me cook. Singed my eyebrows the very first day. Sometimes I make ‘mustgo’ soup. I go through the refrigerator and say, ‘This must go.’ ”
Then: “When I was a kid, we had to sneak off to Chicago to see ‘The Song of Bernadette’ because there were too many Protestants in Oak Park.”
And: “Try an oatmeal cookie. They’re my job security.”
Folks, he’s here all week. And has been for six decades.
“Be hard to bury old Bonny and keep him down,” Cyprian said with a smile.
The monks live celibate lives and give up all possessions. They own nothing. If one receives cookies from a family member, he shares with the others.
Jill Johnson, the abbey’s guest master, who runs the office, said the most difficult thing to adjust to is the quiet.
Among the monks, only Brother Francis, on the young end at 72, uses a computer. As vocation director, he must.
“Most of the others don’t even know how to use a computer, or care to learn,” he said.
Work begins in the bakery shortly after breakfast.
Some Franciscan monks, who live on part of the abbey’s 3,400 acres of hills and hollows, lend needed help. Every day this crew makes 125 fruitcakes. The sale of more than 30,000 cakes annually provides the abbey its revenue stream.
Price: $32.50 for online and mail orders, $23 at the abbey gift shop.
For years before starting fruitcakes in 1990, the monks made concrete blocks.
“We had to change the recipe slightly,” Cyprian joked. “And fruitcakes are easier to stack.”
Each day begins with Joseph Reisch, the baker, breaking about 22 dozen eggs. The fruit mixture — pineapples, cherries, raisins, walnuts — is soaked in wine. By 9 a.m., all 125 cakes are in an oven. The same oven. It came from a St. Louis supermarket.
“This thing is built like a tank,” Reisch said.
At another table, cakes baked the previous day are injected with Castillo Gold rum — at eight strategic points — and the tops are decorated with pecan and cherry halves. The cakes are then brushed with corn syrup.
Finally, the monks bless the 2-pound cakes with a prayer.
“Bless now these creations of our hands, that these cakes may be received as tokens of your love … ”
The cakes then age six weeks before shipping.
Through the work, Elijah, the old abbey dog, sleeps on the sidewalk outside.
Father Robert, 88, is the oldest of the Trappist monks at Assumption. Donald, 91, is in a nursing home in Ava. When it’s time, Donald will be brought “home” to die. The abbey has an infirmary wing for that purpose.
They will probably all be there someday, a choice made decades ago.
None voices any regrets about their lives. Anything they missed, they chose to miss.
“I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted except to join my brothers in the cemetery,” Cyprian said.