But as the area's population grew and nearby Oconomowoc Lake evolved into a popular tourist spot, the monks found it increasingly difficult to find solitude for prayer, McCoy said.
In the mid-1980s, a group of monks decided to relocate about 160 miles to the northwest, to a stretch of farmland outside Sparta (pop. 8,700). They relied heavily on farm leases and renters to pay their bills, and used the profits to buy more real estate around their 600 acres.
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.
But their quarters were far from comfortable. For years, their sanctuary was a double-wide trailer with a leaky roof. The home "was a dump," McCoy said, with "a heater that froze in the winter and crickets in the vents."
Just as they finished work on a new chapel and the first wing of the monastery in 1995, crop prices fell and their rental income dwindled to nearly nothing. Their options were limited by the small number of men who called the abbey home and could help pull in enough money to pay the bills.
McCoy led his brethren in trying to find a solution. Between prayers, they wandered along the gravel roads that crisscross their farmland and tossed around ideas.
Should they embrace Wisconsin's dairy roots and make cheese? After all, Trappists in Spencer, Mass., turn local fruits into jams and preserves. Grow grapes and bottle wine? Monks in Oregon have built a massive warehouse and store rare vintages for collectors.
"There are only five of us, ranging in age from 31 to 50, healthy enough to work," McCoy said. (The abbey's sixth monk, retired Abbot Blaise Fuez, 85, lives in a residential nursing facility nearby.)
"We didn't have enough hands to do the work and still have time to pray."
The ideas kept rolling in -- grow gourmet shiitake mushrooms? Christmas trees? Build a luxury golf course on the land?
It was while McCoy was printing a list of the proposals that inspiration hit. His printer ran out of ink.
He began comparison shopping on the Internet for a replacement toner cartridge. The prices made him blanch: $200 or more for one. The most expensive would be nearly enough to cover a third of the monthly grocery bill.
Calling vendors in search of a discount, McCoy discovered that the companies were willing to sell to him at a discount if he bought in bulk, just as they would to bigger retail chains. The monks told local schools and churches about their plan to get cheap ink and launched a not-for-profit company to place a group order. Word spread, and soon the abbey's phone rang steadily with Catholic schools and rural parishes seeking savings.
In the fall of 2002, the monks launched a website and became an online clearinghouse for printer cartridges. Envisioning themselves as a "monkish" version of Amazon.com, they focused on two things: low prices and marketing themselves as trustworthy business folks.
With the slogan "Saving You Money, Serving Those In Need," the company pulled in $2,000 in Internet sales in fiscal 2002. Three years later, as the monks expanded to include other office supplies, business furniture and computer laptop accessories, the enterprise grossed more than $2 million.
The monks don't take a salary, though the for-profit enterprise does pay taxes.
After the costs of running the company and maintaining the abbey are covered -- which eat up about 85% of the profits -- the monks distribute what remains to several dozen charities, including a Vietnamese school for orphans, a Costa Rican group that helps the children of impoverished farmers and a Minnesota summer camp for children with AIDS.
It also funds its own Torchlight Foundation, which helps schools pay for curriculum to teach socially responsible business practices.
In addition to what they sell, the monks also take e-mail prayer requests. It is a way for the cloistered community to reach out to the world, said McCoy, and to interact on something other than finances.
At first, the monks received an e-mail or two a day.
Now they get nearly 500 prayer requests a month. Each gets printed out and stacked carefully on a table just outside the abbey's refectory. The monks sift through the pile several times a day, plucking out the pleas that move them. The pile, restocked every few days, is routinely 4 inches thick. Once the prayers are completed, the requests are carefully boxed and stored in the abbey's basement.
Some writers ask for help finding a better job. Others plead for divine aid in selling their homes in a slumping real estate market.
On a recent afternoon, one request catches McCoy's eye: "My wife's wake was last night and the funeral is this morning. . . . I'm feeling just a little under the weather. Pray for me to be strong."
The monk, on his way to a meeting with the company's management team, grabs it. Work can wait.
Standing in the hallway, in front of a half-scale statue of St. Bernard, McCoy bows his head, closes his eyes and prays.
As their financial woes eased, the monks began to enjoy themselves. After all, they reasoned, living a simple life didn't mean a life without pleasure.