MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And happy almost end of 2012. Can you believe it? It's almost the end of the year. But before we ring in 2013, we wanted to pause a bit and bring you a sort of year in review. And we don't mean the year in review that covers the big huge stories of 2012. Instead, we want to bring you stories that are, you might say, quintessentially "Metro Connection," stories that take you on unexpected adventures across the region.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1
When the poop hits the fan, the adrenalin flows.
And introduce you to some particularly intriguing characters.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2
Yeah, I'm known as the cat lady.
First, though, we'll head to Clarke County, Va. Just turned right onto Cool Spring Road and we are surrounded by corn. Right in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lots and lots of corn on the left-side of the road, on the right-side of the road, to a 1,200 acre Trappist monastery. Wow, this place, like, goes on forever, known as Holy Cross Abbey. Okay, here we are. Holy Cross was founded in 1950 when an elegant 18th century house, since then Trappist monks have lived in the house and the attached dormitory in accordance with the rule of Saint Benedict, a religious tradition established in the 7th century, living quiet lives of renunciation, simplicity and contemplation.
The monastery grew rapidly in its first 20 years, and at its height, it was home to 60 monks.
BROTHER BARNABAS BROWNSEY
And we're down to about 13 now, I think. So there's been quite an attrition.
And as Brother Barnabas Brownsey points out, it isn't just the number of monks that's changed over the past 62 years, it's the age. The eldest monk, Brother Edward, is in his early 90s. Father Joseph, the youngest, is 55. So Brother Barnabas...
I'm 78 years old.
...is just a little bit older than the average. And like several of his fellow monks, he admits he isn't in the best of health. He actually ran the monastery's fruitcake bakery for 15 years. It produces, like, 15,000 cakes annually.
But then, one year, my understudy enrolled in the seminary, so he was not available for the fruitcake season. And at the end of the season, I was busted. I was burned out.
Holy Cross's abbot, Father Robert, took note of the situation and called Barnabas into his office where he promptly took him off fruitcake duty.
I said, Father, if I was able, I'd jump across the desk and kiss you. So he was relieved, and so was I.
We're laughing here, sure, but here's the thing, Holy Cross's monks are getting older and so are the men who've been joining the order. Most have already had another whole career, if not two or three. I mean, take Brother Barnabas, he'd been an engineer, an executive and an English teacher and had been married with kids. Brother Efrain Sosa worked at a university in New York City, got licensed as a funeral director and spent 20 years as a Capuchin Franciscan friar.
BROTHER EFRAIN SOSA
At age 53, I decided I want to do this. And so I came here and they accepted me.
These days, Brother Efrain is the abbey's vocation director and novice director, so he's in charge of recruiting new men and guiding beginning monks. Traditionally, is the vocation director also the novice director?
No. No, it's usually separate. But in our case because we're so small right now, we multitask here. That's our middle names, "Efrain Multi-task Sosa."
Okay, once again we laugh and to be honest, all this laughing did kind of surprise me in a place devoted to a centuries long tradition of quiet contemplation. But the thing is, while Brother Efrain may hold two jobs, his hands aren't necessarily all that full. Are there any novices now?
No. We don't have any. We have a few people that are interested. In fact, at the end of this month, we have two people that'll be coming to investigate the life.
Now, whether they'll choose to stay is anyone's guess. The most recent observer at Holy Cross to become a postulant and then a novice, then to take solemn vows was Brother Efrain himself.
And I've been a monk here now for seven years.
But while Holy Cross has a clear social problem, fewer potential monks and older, current monks, the traditionally self-supporting abbey also has its share of financial issues. Because, let's face it, the market for fruitcake isn't exactly what it used to be. And since the monks are too old to run their decades-old beef-cattle operation, they've been leasing their 800 acres of cow pasture and feed core and land at less than market rate. The monks also have a retreat house for visitors. That's where I stayed during my visit. But the house barely brings in enough money to cover its own costs. And yet, when I ask Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas about all of this, they have the same basic response.
This is God's work.
It's in God's hands.
This is not ours.
If God wants us to be here...
If God wants this monastery to be here...
...we'll be here.
...it will be here.
If he doesn't, we'll go somewhere else.
His Will always comes through.
God's Will, will be what will be and it's up to us to accept it.
But meanwhile, adds Brother Barnabas...
We have to do the best we can with what we have. It's as simple as that.
Which is why, in 2007, Holy Cross embarked on a five-year plan to make the monastery more sustainable. How are you?
MR. ED LEONARD
Good. Was that too long of a walk?
It was lovely.
Lovely. And as the five years come to a close, the guy heading up the sustainability efforts is Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Leonard. So what is this structure in which we are standing?
This is our funeral chapel, but I think we need to call it something else. I'm not sure chapel is really the right word, commemoration building?
Whatever the term, the wood building is about the size of your average barn, with open walls, kind of like a picnic shelter at a park, only this one has a bell, a steeple and a composting toilet. It's part of the new Cool Spring Natural Cemetery, a green burial ground for people of all faiths. Is there -- is there like a wooden casket, is there no casket?
If you'd like a wood casket, that's perfectly fine, but you can also be buried in just a shroud. You know, what could be more green than laying a body in the ground and just letting the ground do what it's done for millions of years?
But the green cemetery isn't the only way Holy Cross hopes to become more sustainable. It's placed 200 acres of land in a conservation easement. And it's transformed more than 100 acres of cattle pasture along the river, in to cropland.
Cattle are very tough on the land. And the cattle would use the river to drink from, and of course when the cattle would go into the river, they would do the things cattle do in rivers and that would all go to the Chesapeake Bay.
The abbey is cost-sharing the land with nearby Great Country Farms, whose workers have spent months planting a bevy of fruits and vegetables at Holy Cross, everything from tomatoes, zucchini and squash...
Here to our left we have an asparagus patch.
...to cucumbers, blueberries and cantaloupe, which incidentally -- fresh cantaloupe...
Yeah, how about that.
...may very well be the most succulent cantaloupe I've ever tasted.
I even have napkins.
I don't need a napkin. I need a napkin. Ed Leonard says he's confident these initiatives will get Holy Cross Abbey back on firm financial footing. And when I ask Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas how they feel, curious to get your thoughts about that, lessening the number of cattle and making more farming, the cemetery, the open air chapel. What are your thoughts on all of these projects? They both second Ed's motion.
It's all exciting for us because it's for our future. We need something to sustain us in the future.
I think we're going to have sufficient revenue to continue, to go on.
But Brother Barnabas hastens to add, much still depends on God's Will.
And now all we have to do is hope that God will choose younger men, by young, you know, 40s, 50s and that they will come. They will hear the call and come.
To see photos of Holy Cross Abbey, including the green cemetery, the farm, the 18th century house, the fruitcake bakery, even some chocolate covered fruitcake, which the monks call Frater's or Fraters, visit our website metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.