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Cookies, Beer and Prayer- Monastery Evolves to Meet Challenges

Steve Burger

A tradition of hospitality and a cutting edge business philosophy are keeping a Southwestern Indiana monastery thriving as the sisters who live there look toward a new decade. 

Credit Steve Burger

Perched on a hill on the east side of Ferdinand, Indiana, since the 1800’s,  the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception dominates the skyline, seemingly guarding the southern entrance to Dubois County.

While the massive structure may seem a bit overwhelming to newcomers, those more familiar know a different reality about the Benedictine nuns who live here. Work, hospitality and prayer set the rhythm of life on the hill.

On the day I visited, Sister Joella Kidwell and lay worker Sharon Bittner were packing pretzels that, once they’ve added spices and put them in the monastery’s gift shop will be known as Prayerful Pretzels. The scooping and bag shaking are not so much the sound of production as they are the sound of survival.

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN-FM
Bakery manager Kris Lasher seals bags of Prayerful Pretzels.

The Monastery Baked Goods (formerly known as the Simply Divine Bakery) takes up a building on the east side of the massive campus. What started with springerle cookies sold at Ferdinand's annual Christkindlmarkt event has turned into a bakery and distribution business that markets around the country and online.

Sister Karlene Sensmeier entered the order when John F. Kennedy was president. Sister Karlene is in charge of everything inside the walls that touches the outside world.

Credit Angie Seffernick
Sister Karlene Sensmeier and Steve Burger chat at the monastery.

“We need other sources of income as our sisters are retiring, to take the place of schools and parish ministry and those kinds of things. So, part of it is an economic thing too, but whatever we do to supply funds has to be compatible with who we are as a community.”

“Was it a difficult discussion going from the more traditional to the innovative?”

“It is difficult in that you’re bringing something new to the table, but it’s not difficult because of the way we approach different venues. We use a kind of discernment process to come to what we’re going to decide, so it’s the community and not an individual or even a group of individuals. The group of individuals, such as the administration, may bring the topic to the community. But it is the community that finally says that this is something we want as part of our focus.”

The order has had a deep impact on education in Southwestern Indiana, but times have changed. Saint Benedict College closed in 1970 and Marian Heights Academy in 2000. 

What brought the nuns of the Monastary of the Immaculate Conception to Southwest Indiana was to teach and minister to the German immigrants who flooded this area beginning in the 1830’s. 

But what will keep the order here is, in part, retail sales. In 2019, the bakery produced about 54,000, or 4,500 dozen cookies for sale at various outlets around the country and online.

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN-FM
A chalkboard in the bakery outlines the day's work.

In the business world, what the sisters are doing by diversifying is called design thinking- find a niche, do extensive research and then be ready to pivot to products or services that will help you thrive in the changing global marketplace. I asked Sister Karlene how it felt to be on the cutting edge of business.

“You know I almost don’t know how to answer that. I think there’s a process within the Benedictine orders and I don’t say that we have a corner on it, where we really do a lot of soul searching, a lot of praying on how can we best serve and still stay true to who we are. And so, we truly look at things that are going to allow us to live the Benedictine life.”

Bakery manager Kris Lasher worked for many years in social services before applying for her current role. Her grandmother helped her get the job.

By some accounts, a whole lot of soul searching went into the decision to turn a former art studio on the monastery grounds into a craft brewery and tap room. Saint Benedict's Brew Works owner Vince Luecke said that turned out to be a tough decision for the nuns.

“I think the sisters had to ask themselves, you know, how much irony is there of having a small craft brewery on our grounds when some of our sisters interact with people who struggle with alcoholism or other addictions?”

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN-FM
St. Benedict's Brew Works owner Vince Lueke in the tap room.

Luecke said the brewery has lasted four years at the monastery by being careful to honor the Benedictine tradition. For the most part, landlord-tenant relations are good and the brewery even gets a little help with market research.

“The sisters pray for us and they sample beer. They give us good feedback on beer. In return, we know we help them a lot with the good work they’re doing in the community.”

Cookies, beer, hydroponic gardening, some pretty high tech archives and a lot of hospitality, work and prayer. That’s what survival looks like for the ancient order of the Sisters of St. Benedict as they approach their next decade of service, on the hill in Ferdinand, Indiana. 

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