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For fifty years, a small, secluded Abbey of Benedictine monks has thrived in southwest Missouri. The monks are known far and wide for their culinary skills and are hard at work this time of year. KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports.
One by one, men dressed in long, white, hooded robes shuffle into the dimly-lit chapel, wiping the sleep from their eyes.
It is not yet dawn here in Assumption Abbey, yet the monks take their seats in the old, creaky wooden pews...and they wait for mass to begin.
Assumption Abbey, remotely located in the Ozarks hills south of Ava, Missouri, is a sanctuary to ten monks, one of whom lives as a hermit down the road. They are known as "Trappist" monks, and they live by the strict observance of St. Benedict's sixth-century guidelines for monastic life. They live mostly in silence, and devote their lives to St. Benedict's Latin motto: pax, ora et labora, meaning "peace, prayer and work."
But the monks are better known in the Ozarks for the production of their fruitcakes, which are made by hand here at the Abbey. Right now is peak season for the fruitcakes. Father Mark Scott, the Abbot in charge of the monks, says many people don't realize that the making of the fruitcakes actually ties into the faith.
"Saint Benedict doesn't say anything about fruitcakes in his rule, but he does say that the monks live by the work of their hands," he said.
Each monk has a job to do: some mix the batter or marinate the fruit. Father Donald, the oldest member at age 86, stamps each fruitcake tin with its date of production. Father Robert, the hermit, comes by the bakery just to sort the pecans.
Again, Father Mark Scott.
"Any of the monks will tell you that as they're working, they're praying. So the cakes are saturated in prayer as much as they are saturated in rum," he said.
The bakery is a short walk from the main Abbey.
Inside, it's a spacious, clean building with a crucifix mounted for all to see. The monks quietly perform their tasks. During the holiday season, they make 125 fruitcakes per day.
There's a sign on the door of the bakery which says, 'Please observe the monastic silence in the bakery at all times.' Most of the monks here prefer to do their baking in absolute silence. But there is one person here who is particularly eager to talk: Brother Joseph.
"We start out with brown sugar and butter," he explains. "Then we emulsify that with vanilla and milk."
Brother Joseph is a former NAVY sailor and the son of a brewmaster. He had a religious conversion in the 1980s and found the life of penance and solitude comforting. He has been here for twenty years and is now the chief fruitcake baker.
Four gallons of Burgundy wine are poured into enormous fruit vats to marinate the raisins, currants, pineapple, lemon peel and citron found in the cakes. Then, Brother Joseph dons elbow-length gloves and reaches deep into the 250 pounds of fruit, turning it to distribute the wine evenly.
Once the batter is ready, it's poured into the pans, and the cakes slide into the oven.
When the cakes finish baking, the monks treat each fruitcake to eight injections of rum. The finishing touches are left to two monks who appear to be extremely focused on their work; Brother Thomas is nearly 80 years old, and Brother Lazarus's beard reaches down to his ribcage. Neither makes eye contact or utters a sound.
Brother Lazarus, who prefers to work in silence, is drizzling what appears to be a thick, sugary paste on top of the fruitcakes with a pastry brush.
Now, Brother Thomas is meticulously placing two marinated red cherries, two green cherries and four pecans on top of each fruitcake. This decoration step is the last step in the fruitcake production.
Just before the fruitcakes are boxed and shipped out to places as far away as Ireland, France and Japan, the monks in the bakery take a moment to stop and pray, specifically asking God to bless the work of their hands from that day.
"To the Lord in the hour of my distress...I call out and he answers me..."
For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.