A spicy heavenly scent permeates the hallways leading to a spacious basement which houses cool storage rooms and a modern bakery. Here, all year, six Cistercian monks and brothers chop, churn, blend and bake fruits, mincemeat and natural ingredients into delicious gourmet fruitcakes. These will be sold at Christmas time in the city.
The Christmas rush began early for the monks at the Cistercian Monastery of Notre Dame, in Hockley Heights, Ontario. In fact, it began last May with the first “bake” of the season. Like Santa’s fabled elves at the north pole, the industrious monks prepare for Christmas throughout the year.
The process of making fruitcakes, which includes the preparation of ingredients and “the bake,” is a systematic, streamlined operation. During the winter the monks make a basic ingredient of “mincemeat,” which consists of 25,000 pounds of chopped green tomatoes, marinated in a wine sauce with raisins and spices, and stored until spring.
When the mincemeat is ripened, it is blended with fruits and spices in a large steel tub and left to marinate for several weeks. Other ingredients are added later to form a batter, which is then poured into a large hopper and slowly stirred. The exact weight of batter required for a specific cake size is measured by an electronic piston attached to the hopper and dropped into a cake pan, which moves along a conveyer belt below. The cakes are now ready for the last step – a trip to the oven – which I am about to see.
Upon my arrival at the monastery to see the cake-making process, I am hurried downstairs to the baker by my host, Father Justin, to see 440 loaf-size fruitcakes being loaded into a huge electric oven. This is the first “bake” of the day. The sight is mouth-watering – the scent is heavenly. The procedure is slick and swift, over in a few minutes. Afterward my genial host invites me to the common room (where talking is allowed) for coffee, conversation and fruitcake If I want some.
Father Justin, a priest for over 40 years and the former head of the famous cheese factory at the Oka Monastery in Quebec, welcomes questions about the history, life and work of the monks. Father Justin was the first superior of the Hockley Heights monastery, which he built in 1982, along with several French Canadian Cistercians from Oka, in order to introduce the contemplative, monastic life to Ontario and English speaking Canada. The modern monastery is nestled in a serene colourful setting of the rolling Caledon Hills, one hour’s drive from downtown Toronto. Like an oasis of tranquility in a world of turmoil, it offers silent, private retreats to people who seek time and freedom for prayer and meditation. It is strictly contemplative (meditative) and unlike most other monasteries, it does not have teaching or pastoral duties in the community.
The Cistercians follow the Sixth-century “Rule” of St. Benedict for living and praying. Two strict renewals have occurred in their long history: the first was in the eleventh century when a group of Benedictine monks founded a new order in Citeaux, France – hence the name Cistercians; the second was in the seventeenth century, led by the Abbott of LaTrappe, in France – hence the alternate name of “Trappist.”
Today there are 3,000 monks and 2,000 nuns around the world. The monastery staff at Hockley Heights has five priests, three brothers and two novices, and all help in the production of the fruitcakes. The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes that monks earn their living by manual labour which according to Father Justin, “keeps our life in balance. We work six days a week and we don’t need holidays because we don’t get tired – no burn out here.”
A typical day for the monks begins at 3:00 a.m. and ends at 8:00 p.m. and mingles prayer meditation and manual labour. The monks pray in a pleasant unadorned chapel. Outside a bell tolls for the Angelus(at noon and at 6:00 p.m.) and for special events. They live by a modified Rule of Silence, dating to St. Benedict, speaking only as required. All of their activities are seen as a continuous prayer, intensified by silence. They pray four hours a day.
The Hockley Heights fruitcake business began in 1985, after young Father John Doutre, the Cistercian superior, borrowed the idea from the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky (made famous by Thomas Merton). There the good monks freely shared information about their fruitcake operation and mail order business – but kept secret their fruitcake recipe. But back home Father Doutre resolved his problem by reviving an old family fruitcake recipe, circa 1908, dating back to his great-grandmother who lived in Cornwall, Ontario. With some experimentation the monks perfected the recipe and sealed it, their “secret” of Hockley Heights.
In fact, the recipe is protected by a copyright on the monks’ trademark (picture of a monk wearing a hood) because the shrewd monks know about worldly scams, in which religious words like “abbey” and “monastic” are used as popular gimmicks in advertising today. They want none of this chicanery.
Although Campaign Life Coalition buys many fruitcakes from the Cistercians to sell as fund-raisers from its office and local churches, the monks supply to others, such as the popular St. Lawrence Market and several religious bookstores – all in downtown Toronto.
As for the success of the fruitcakes, Father Justin says he is not surprised, “because the cakes are good and they advertise themselves.” Had they not been successful the monks would have accepted the fact and tried something else. “God can give you success if He wants – it’s not a miracle.
How are the fruitcakes seen by buyers? Father Justin thinks “many people are searching for God today. They want to know about meditation and how to pray, so they go where they can learn.” He believes people buy the fruitcake “because it comes from a monastery and they know the product is good. At the same time, this arouses curiosity about what monastic life is about. This in turn elevates their minds to the idea of prayer and God – which is good.
As for their work, Father Justin says, “our life is somewhat similar to the life of Jesus in Nazareth, because it includes much prayer, meditation upon the Scriptures and manual labour. We are encouraged that our life here is useful to our brothers and sisters in the world for whom we continually pray. At this time of year especially, we pray for the pre-born – that they may have protection, and for all those who labour in their cause.”
At Christmas time in the city the cause of the pre-born child is helped by the sale of the monk’s fruitcakes and strengthened by their prayers. And so in a sense, the pious monks of Hockley Heights participate today indirectly, in the cause of the pre-born child by offering the fruit of their labours and the gift of their prayers – like the humble shepherds of Bethlehem long ago, who worked, watched and prayed for the uninterrupted journey of the newborn Babe into the world.