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Lots of black ink now

A struggling monastery's prayers were answered with its launch of an online printer cartridge business. Has affluence bedeviled the monks?

August 10, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MONROE COUNTY, WIS. — Nearly a decade ago, a tiny group of monks in this rural stretch of western Wisconsin realized they might have been too successful at following a vow of poverty.

Their income a pittance, their home desperately in need of repair and with few prospects for help, the six monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank prayed for divine intervention -- and brainstormed within the brotherhood for businesses they might start.

One day as Father Bernard McCoy was printing out entrepreneurial ideas from the monastery's aging computer, an idea came to him: ink -- for printer cartridges.

"Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers were charged with making ink and creating the tools for illuminating manuscripts," said McCoy, 40, chief executive of the company they would found. "We figured, 'Why can't we do the same thing now?' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Monks: An article in Friday's Section A about the monks of Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank and their success in launching a multimillion-dollar business said they were chanting in Latin during a daily prayer service. They were chanting in Greek.

Today, thanks to LaserMonks Inc., which sells computer printing and office supplies over the Internet -- the abbey is rich. LaserMonks pulled in about $4 million in sales last fiscal year, and is expected to reach nearly $7 million in 2007.

The bounty has posed an incongruity. It has allowed the monastery to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofit groups around the world. But it has also brought a standard of living that could be seen as excessive -- for monks, at least.

They own a plane to take them around the country to give motivational speeches to would-be entrepreneurs. They bought two purebred Peruvian Paso horses. They've built a private art studio for one monk with a talent for oil painting, and a well-stocked wood shop for another skilled in sculpture. They've splurged on an elaborate model train set and matching 1950s river town in the basement.

How, the monks now regularly ask themselves, do you maintain a simple spiritual life when you've become a multi- millionaire?

They answer most often with a grin and a shrug.

"Ours is supposed to be a life of detachment," said Brother David Klecker, 31. "But it's hard to be truly detached when you can be so comfortable."

Klecker should know. The abbey's success has allowed Klecker, trained as a software engineer, the luxury of buying digital video equipment and top-of-the-line editing software used by Hollywood visual effects teams to create vocational videos for YouTube.

"I don't care whether you're an executive on Wall Street or a monk in the Midwest, the human spirit is, like it or not, pretty universal," said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.

"Just because you're a monk, it doesn't mean you're exempt from asking the same questions: How much do you enjoy your success? And how much do you give away to help others?"

Each morning around 4, a digital bell gently tolls in the two-story, tan-colored abbey, where bay windows look out onto rolling hills of emerald-green cornstalks and dense groves of oak trees.

On the second floor, the monks rise from their rough-hewn beds. Each sleeps in a modest cell, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. In the dark, the men slip first into casual attire -- jeans and button-down shirts on cooler days, shorts and T-shirts when the weather turns warm -- and then don their robes. The white tunic, with full sleeves that drape over their hands like fabric bells, is paired with a simple black scapular.

They head downstairs to the abbey's main living area and chapel.

Structuring their days around the credo ora et labora (pray and work), the monks gather eight times a day to chant and pray. In between, they help a trio of lay workers with bookkeeping. They develop marketing plans and take customer inquiries about the latest deals on toner.

"I also cook some meals and clean the toilets every Friday," McCoy said. "What other CEO can say that?"

The entrepreneurial spirit that has driven LaserMonks to success is as innate for Cistercians as their fondness for Gregorian chant.

The order historically has been innovative, as members tended to come from well- educated upper-class families, said E. Rozanne Elder, director of the Institute of Cistercian Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

In the Middle Ages, the order engineered water sources to generate power and create central heating systems. Cistercian monks became renowned for their meticulous hand-copying of religious texts.

"Whatever the most up-to-date way to support themselves, they did it," Elder said. "It was thought that no matter how marginal the land or opportunity, through thrift and hard work the Cistercians would make it prosperous."

Such was the case with the Cistercian abbey here in western Wisconsin. The order first set up a monastery in 1928 in Oconomowoc, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. Drawn to the region's rich farmland and strong Catholic community, the monks moved into a manor house and began raising livestock.

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