Cover Story

Peace and Prayer -- and Fruitcake


Story and Photos by Robin Crouch Cardillo, Contributing Writer

Abbot Robert Barnes welcomes visitors to the abbey.

At Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, the pace is slow and purposeful – and strangely inviting.

In March, a journalist for a major newspaper booked a week at Holy Cross Abbey’s Retreat House, a 16-room lodge that sits on 1,200 lush acres along the Shenandoah River in Berryville, Va.

Anticipating a time of reflection and prayer, she prepared for an introspective, unplugged visit, with the possibility of uncovering material for an article. Within two days, she was so antsy she had to “tweet” her friends about her silent vacation and tried desperately to connect her laptop to wi-fi.

Father Robert, in his traditional black-and-white robe, smiles as he recounts the story. He joined the abbey in 1961 and has been its abbot for the last 12 years.

“The world isn’t the same as when we were growing up. Today’s society is very different,” he says with a knowing nod. “People talk on the phone to each other, not while they’re sitting together on the porch. I grew up in the Eisenhower years, when family life was more cohesive. Nowadays, families are spread all over the country, all over the world. At the monastery, we’re a very different phenomenon. We try to live with the rhythm of nature.”

As the leader at Holy Cross, Father Robert plays a spiritual and teaching role, but also an administrative one, ensuring the buildings are in good repair, overseeing finances, and handling personnel. With only 22 monks now on the rolls at Holy Cross — 16 active, three currently on assignments, and three in nursing homes — the abbey finds it necessary to hire 10 full-time workers from the surrounding community. These employees provide such services as bakery management, maintenance, and landscaping.

The earthly remains of deceased Holy Cross monks are laid to rest on quiet hillside. Twelve-hundred rolling acres and beautiful vistas invite visitors to wonder as they ponder.

The monastery’s population is aging. While the youngest monk is 52, most are in their 70s and 80s, says Father Robert. And, of course, the abbey doesn’t recruit.

“It’s a vocation, a calling,” he explains. “This isn’t a way of life that’s natural for human beings. We’re a social animal. It doesn’t work for everyone.”

The Simplicity of the Day

What’s a typical day for a Holy Cross monk?

“I don’t know if I have a typical day,” admits Brother Vincent, a pleasantly thoughtful monk who’s generous with his time and perspective. “I just do what needs to be done. I try to be of service. It’s like having a house. You do whatever you need to do. You wake up and think everything’s fine and then you see the toilet’s leaking. It’s work. It’s for your family. That’s how I look at it.”

Brother Vincent is in charge of the abbey’s kitchen and gift shop. He shops for the groceries; he tallies the shop’s sales at the end of each day. Brother Vincent joined Holy Cross in 1968 and stayed for 10 years, then left to earn his credentials in psychiatric nursing. He returned in 1998. Now he nurtures two cats and five kittens that have moved into the shrubs near the store, and he grows vegetables and herbs where hedges once stood in front of the shop. The food garden is a new project, and not everyone at the monastery is happy about it, he whispers. But the sun and soil are perfect there, so he forges on.

Vespers, the evening prayer service, is a solemn, peaceful ceremony open to the public.

As Brother Vincent walks slowly toward the chapel for vespers, he talks about how monasteries have changed since he first joined Holy Cross. Years ago, young men joined the abbey straight from high school or college. Today, they’re encouraged to work first. “That’s just part of growing up,” he says softly. Likewise, the church has loosened its practice of giving monks and nuns new names when they join. (Brother Vincent still uses his adopted name instead of his birth name.) “The technology couldn’t handle that many ‘Marys,’ ” he smiles.

Arriving at the chapel, Brother Vincent disappears behind the building, ultimately joining about a dozen other monks in pews at the front of the church. Visitors — only three this evening — sit behind roping at the back of the church. Vespers begin promptly at 5:30 as the rich, a cappella singing melds with the soft-spoken prayer.

Part of the Cistercian order, the monks take vows of obedience and stability. They rise early each morning, preparing for the first service in the chapel at 3:30 a.m. Prayer and meditation fill the day, from Vigils before dawn until the final Compline at 7:30 in the evening.

But they have slices of time for other pursuits.

For instance, Brother James, a lay archaeologist, has unearthed treasures from the abbey’s pastures and river banks, from Civil War buttons and bullets to Indian stone weaponry that’s been dated to 9500 B.C. His collection of artifacts is on display at the monastery on the second floor of Cool Spring House, a beautiful 1784 structure painted a peaceful sky blue and used for meetings by the monks and visitors. The Battle of Cool Spring was the site of the only Civil War battle in Clarke County.

Open Doors

The Holy Cross Abbey welcomes visitors — of all faiths — to join services or to reserve rooms at the Retreat House. Overnight lodging is designed for individuals, not groups, and accommodates a maximum of 30 visitors a week. It’s not always full, according to Father Robert, but it easily houses a thousand visitors each year. “Some people keep coming back,” he says.

“We invite individuals to come to have their own space with God.” There are no schedules, no group meetings, he adds. “We simply make available to our guests the same benefits we have.”

Five years ago, the monastery hosted an open house for the residents of surrounding Berryville and Clarke County. Holy Cross wanted the locals to better understand the monks’ way of life and to be comfortable with the abbey.

“We make people nervous,” says Father Robert. “They used to ask, 'Who are those men down by the river, those men who never marry?' Now, we’re more accepted.”

In fact, during the open house, one local businesswoman revealed she came looking for any bit of information she could find about her great-great-grandmother, who, she discovered, had been a slave at the Cool Spring House. She remembered stories of how her ancestor hid in the woodshed when soldiers passed through. The woodshed has long been removed, but for the great-great-granddaughter, the visit was a comfort, a sense of closure, recalls Father Robert.

The history at Holy Cross is indeed “amazing,” the abbot reflects. “Just think. Native Americans and English colonists were here. The Battle of Cool Spring was fought here. The blood of our brothers is on these fields. And now we have the monks. It’s a place of peace and prayer. And we let people who come here find what they want to find.” 

Blessed Batter

Fruitcakes made at Holy Cross are shipped all around the globe. The abbey sells about 20,000 of the cakes each year.

Every other week, a half dozen Holy Cross monks — often joined by guests from the abbey’s Retreat House — don white aprons and paper hats and quietly begin assembling the abbey’s signature brandy-and-honey-glazed fruitcakes. The cakes offer a revenue stream that edges the monastery closer to self-sufficiency.

The image of monks baking fruitcakes is so intriguing that the monastery bakery has attracted media attention from The Food Network, Southern Living magazine, and The Washington Post, among others.

No wonder the small group of monks produces — and sells — about 20,000 of these richly dense fruitcakes each year. Customers from around the globe ask for them.

 “I’m shipping one to Japan today,” says Ernie Polanskas, the bakery manager for the last 10 years. Polanskas isn’t a monk, but he oversees the entire fruitcake processional: The monks begin making the batter early in the day. By 10 a.m., the cakes are dispensed into baking pans, decorated with nuts and cherries, and ready for the oven, where they bake for two hours at 300 degrees. Then they’re cooled, packaged, and moved to a storage building for six weeks before they’re shipped. By the end of the day, the monks have produced an impressive 700 cakes.

The monastery’s bakery business began in 1955, first producing hearty loaves of bread. But the bread’s shelf life was short — “It had to be made and shipped the same day,” says Polanskas — and bread-baking called for more manpower, a requirement the abbey just couldn’t meet. So they switched to fruitcakes.

Surprisingly, three other monasteries in the U.S. produce and sell fruitcakes, according to Polanskas.

That hasn’t diminished sales here. Holy Cross is unexpectedly sophisticated in its marketing. Each year, two mailings go out to established customers, and someone was sufficiently savvy to reserve as the website domain some time ago. The monastery even sells a fruitcake package on Amazon. (Try Googling Holy Cross Abbey and you'll find the top-ranked listing references the bakery. Now, that’s marketing.)

At least once a week, the monks also make creamed honeys in several flavors, totaling about 1,000 tubs a day. And they periodically travel to a candy shop in nearby Martinsburg, W.Va., to create deliciously decadent truffles as well as their own creation, fraters, which are fruitcake slices dipped in gloriously dark chocolate.

On this day, the fruitcake team is short a volunteer. They ask a visitor if she’d like to help. After a half hour of adorning the tops of the cakes with red and green cherries, she unties her apron to leave. “I hope you don’t get any returns from this batch,” she offers on her way out.

“Oh no, no,” the monk in charge of the batter quickly replies. “I’m sure these fruitcakes will be doubly blessed.” 


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