Initially, Benedictine monasteries sustained themselves and funded their charitable work through landholding and agriculture. They became famous for their vineyards and wineries – for producing Benedictine, Chartreuse, and champagne. (The Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is remembered fondly for perfecting the production of champagne.) Benedictine monasteries, with their pragmatic bent, have always been technologically innovative, and, until the Industrial Age, were the source of most technological advances. Where viniculture was impractical or unprofitable, Benedictines – both monks and nuns – opened breweries. It was Benedictine monks who refined the use of hops to make beer. Even today, the best ale in the world is said to be made by the Trappist monks at the Westvleteren Brewery in Belgium. Trappist monks, a branch of Benedictines, are also famous for their fruitcakes, candy, and jelly. Other products produced by Benedictine monasteries include cologne, bourbon-laced chocolates, cheese, bread, jam, lace, recorded music, books, dog biscuits, caskets, pews, and candles. The Benedictine nuns of Howton Grove Priory in England, led by prioress Sr. Catherine Wybourne (known on Facebook as “Digitalnun”), have employed such digital platforms as easyfundraising. org.uk, MyDonate, and Facebook to support their diverse endeavors.
But just having God on their side does not exempt monks from the laws of economics. The story of LaserMonks.com offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of a monastery’s business efforts being too successful too quickly. LaserMonks. com was an internet retailer launched as the for-profit subsidiary of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, in Sparta, Wisconsin. As Steward of Temporal Affairs, Father Bernard McCoy bore the responsibility of earning enough money to sustain its six monks and support the abbey’s charities. He explored the idea of starting a Christmas tree farm, growing Shiitake mushrooms, and building a convention center. But when his printer cartridge ran out of toner, he had an epiphany:
All I wanted was a little bit of black dust for one of our monastery printers. In my search for a toner cartridge, I was suddenly struck with how incredibly expensive this black dust and a few squirts of ink were. “There must be a better way,” I said to myself. And so began my foray into the world of imaging supplies. What I discovered was a revelation. Simply stated, the mark-up on ink supplies is sinfully high, reaching in some instances into the 1,000-2,000 percent levels. I also discovered that there were many companies that manufactured either new compatible cartridges or remanufactured cartridges at a fraction of the cost of the big name brands. My thoughts started racing. Imagine the money we could save schools, churches, and other organizations if we could negotiate some deals with the manufacturers directly and cut out the middlemen.
During the first year of operations, Laser- Monks made $2,000. By 2006, sales were in excess of $5 million. After the abbey deducted its $200,000 operating budget, all revenue went to the abbey’s charities. Fr. Bernard, whose annual salary held steady at $0 a year, happily called himself “the worst-paid CEO in the country.”
“We have taken the mundane, day-to-day secular market experience of buying black dust and paper clips, and turned it into a positive, feel-good experience,” he said. “It’s purchase for a purpose. It’s what Cistercian monks have always done, but now I’m using that part of our tradition as a marketing tool.”
Fr. Bernard called the business “a case study for social entrepreneurship.” He noted, “Nine hundred years ago my brothers were making ink, making their own paper, and copying manuscripts. We were the original social entrepreneurs. We were the first multinationals.”
LaserMonks expanded its product line to include printers, cables, surge protectors, cell phones, and Blackberries. “We could develop a franchise system for other abbeys,” he said. “I think we could become the Amazon.com of social entrepreneurs.”