60th ANNIVERSARY OF FOUNDATION
ABBEY OF OUR LADY OF THE GENESEE
1951 - 2011
FROM FARMERS TO BAKERS
Fr. Jerome Machar, OCSO, Prior, Bakery Manager
Founded in 1951, the Abbey's wood and stone buildings occupy the silent region of the Genesee Valley that had once been known as the "Eden of the Seneca Indians." The silence and solitude provided by the beauty of nature allowed the monks to hear the Word of God and ponder it in their hearts. Originally named the monastery of Our Lady of Christ the King, the monastery soon came to be called Our Lady of the Genesee, after the Genesee River which marks the eastern boundary of the property. The valley was very cold in the winter, very hot in the summer, but beautiful, tranquil and spiritually rich all year round. The monastery is an expression of the mystery of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, where nothing is preferred to the praise and glory of God. Here, the monks cherish the love of Christ above all things and strive to live together in the bond of charity according to the dictates of the Gospel.
As soon as the brothers established the regular places in their temporary monastery, they turned their attention to clearing the fields, building fences and repairing farm equipment. In the tradition of their founding house, they set about establishing a dairy farm and from the milk their herd would produce, they planned to make cheese. Generous neighbors donated farm animals and others donated time and labor. In short order, the fields were plowed and the herd was pastured.
The brothers bought a large herd of dairy cattle, built a beautiful cow barn, but the cheese house never materialized. Nature and the mineral conditions of the soil seemed adverse for the making of the type of cheese the brothers were planning to make. Also, while the cows were awarded many prizes at the local fairs, the dairy operation did not bring in sufficient money to sustain the monastery. Consequently, the herd was sold off and the brothers turned their efforts from the farm to the factory.
When the monks first came to Piffard, their funds were extremely tight and they did not have money to pay for all the work that had to be done to build the monastery. They depended a great deal on volunteer labor. The men who worked with the monks were welcome to partake of the brothers' table. They loved the bread Br. Sylvester baked for the monks and started asking if they could take loaves of this bread home to their families. This serendipitous turn of events was the beginning of what soon came to be called MONKS' BREAD.
Initially, Br. Sylvester baked the bread in the community kitchen. This disrupted the preparation of meals for the monks and caused problems for the cook. In 1952, the brothers purchased a small school house and erected it behind Bethlehem. It was here that they baked a two pound loaf and packaged it in a plain paper bag. People started visiting the monastery and bought the bread. Merchants in the surrounding areas offered to sell the monks' bread in their establishments. Because of the increased demand, the monks were forced to investigate ways of producing more bread. The added income produced by the bread sales helped cover the expense of erecting the permanent monastic buildings. The baking operation was moved "up the hill" in 1953, but this too proved too small to efficiently produced the needed quantities of bread.
Uppermost in the minds of the monks was their desire to produce a loaf of bread worthy of their own table and yet that they could sell in the marketplace. They needed to be assured that they could produce large quantities of their bread and still maintain the special qualities of their bread. The community enlisted the help of bakery technicians who showed them how their quality issues could be adequately addressed. By using quality ingredients and the straight-dough fermentation process the brothers could maintain the quality of their bread in a factory environment. With that information, they decided to build a professional bakery. In 1956 the present bakery was opened. Over the years the brothers have continued to safeguard the quality of their products and to improve the food and health safety practices in their plant. The company is a well known regional brand of breads known for premium quality products at a fair price.
Even with mechanization, the brothers were not able to meet the growing demand for their bread. Bread requests were coming from across the country. A solution was sought in the development of a franchise operation, whereby select bakeries would be licensed to produce Monks' Bread according to the abbey formula and specifications. At its peak, the franchise operation brought Monks' Bread into homes in nearly every state in the continental USA. Today, there is only one contract bakery producing Monks' Bread and it is located in Florida.
Today the bakery has one line producing eight loaves for retail sale. The bakery is staffed by 13 employees and 21 monks. The building covers about 20,000 sq. feet and ships product every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to distribution centers in Sayre, PA, and Olean, NY. The Abbey of the Genesee is committed to the development and implementation of an all-encompassing policy to assure food safety whereby it can continue to provide its customers with great tasting wholesome products. The abbot and his collaborators are mindful that effective food safety management extends beyond technical departments and involves commitment from production operations, engineering, and distribution management, procurement of raw materials, customer feedback and human resource activity such as training. Our goal is to continually apply and evaluate the scientific principles of HACCP to new and existing products to demonstrate compliance with customer and regulatory food safety requirements. For reasons of security and hygiene, it is not possible to observe the baking process except through slides and photographs.
Over the years, the monks have diversified their product line to meet changing tastes and health concerns. The Monks' product line includes White, Whole Wheat, Multi-grain, Sunflower, Maple-Cinnamon, Raisin, Lite Raisin, Fruit and Berry and Holiday (for Christmas). Realizing that one does not live by bread alone, the brothers have also developed a line of fruitcakes (Rum, Butterscotch, Vanilla, and Burgundy Wine); family cakes (Cranberry-orange, Blueberry and Chocolate Chip); Brownies, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies and Oatmeal Raisin Cookies.
Monks' Bread can be purchased at supermarkets in Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse. In addition to the bread, the cakes and other baked goods are available in the abbey store and in our on-line store (MonksBread.Com). Visitors to the Abbey are often greeted by the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from the bakery stack. Many people are surprised to discover that the familiar little one pound loaf of bread that greeted them on their breakfast table when they were children was actually baked by the monks who lived at the abbey.
The Abbey is dedicated to the Mother of God. When she received the message of the angel, the maiden of Nazareth placed her whole being at the service of the Kingdom, so, too, do monks place their lives at the service of Jesus Christ. By pondering God's Word, monks are trained in a discipline of heart and mind to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and so attain purity of heart and a continual mindfulness of God's presence. The monastery is an expression of the mystery of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, where nothing is preferred to the praise and glory of God. Monks cherish the love of Christ above all things and strive to live together in the bond of charity according to the dictates of the Gospel. In response to God's invitation, Mary gave birth to the Bread of Life. It seems appropriate that the monks at the Abbey of the Genesee should earn their living by baking bread. If you cannot make the trek to the Valley of Our Lady's Smile, please visit the Abbey Website at: www.geneseeabbey.org or our Retreat House Website at: www.abbeyretreats.org or our online store at https://shop.monksbread.com/.
Visit our On-Line Store at monksbread.com.