You can’t get much more biblical than baking bread for the poor
Anyone living downwind of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict on a crisp October morning, when the first cold snap of fall arrives, can attest to why the Catholic Church often is considered smells and bells.
It’s not just the few extra molecules of ozone or piney air or even a waft of incense that makes the abbey God’s country. It’s the sacred smoke signals.
Fall’s first cold air carries southward the heartwarming aroma of baked bread, upwards of 2,000 loaves a week created by the Benedictine monks and Knights of Columbus volunteers out of flour, water, yeast and salt and then transported, free of charge, to dozens of outposts of human relief such as Ozanam Inn, where the needy gather around a table for their daily bread.
Fresh bread, not day-old bread or leftover bread.
The concept of the monks’ 25-year-old Pennies for Bread ministry is simple: Individuals and businesses pledge seed money for the raw materials, providing in more than a symbolic way the leaven. The monks form and knead the dough, bake it and deliver it.
The hungry eat it.
It doesn’t get much more biblical or eucharistic than that.
Father Benedictine Father Augustine Foley, head of the bread-baking ministry since the early 1990s, said Pennies for Bread started initially as another way for the abbey to raise funds for its operations and serve the poor at the same time.
The Benedictine monks have been “green” for centuries. When they came to the northshore from St. Meinrad’s Abbey in southern Indiana, they grew their own vegetables and sugar cane. They raised herds of dairy and beef cattle and also tended to pigs and chickens. Felling and milling trees from the abbey’s expansive pine forest also produced cash to keep the abbey going.
Father Augustine was a city boy known as Edward Foley when he arrived from St. Dominic School in Lakeview to begin high school studies at the abbey.
“I had never seen a cow,” he said. “I was so excited.”
Because he was studying to be a Benedictine monk, Edward got special privileges, such as going to the stalls where the Holstein dairy cows were milked twice a day, with the milk going into a chiller and straight to a dairy in Franklinton for pasteurization.
“That milk was so good,” Father Augustine said, “but it was very labor intensive. It was twice a day, every day, no matter what. That meant every Sunday, every Christmas, the cows had to be milked.”
After the monks got out of the dairy business, they tried raising beef herds for a few years as a way of producing a cash flow for the abbey, but it was essentially a break-even or money-losing proposition.
That’s when a group of laypersons suggested baking bread on a large scale. The idea was for people to donate money for each loaf – perhaps a penny a loaf – and the abbey would bake and deliver the bread, baked with no preservatives, free of charge to those who most needed it.
In addition to serving the poor, the fund-raising project has brought in about $3.25 million for the abbey’s operations over the last 25 years.
And then there was the March 11 flood.
“I was the (Scripture) reader at table during lunch, and all of a sudden people started murmuring,” Father Augustine said. “I thought I must have been reading terribly. Then everybody started looking out the windows. By that time, here comes the river.”
The problem now is that, at least temporarily, the flood has chilled the monks’ ovens. The Tchefuncte destroyed most of the abbey’s baking equipment.
Now, the monks need more than pennies.
Father Augustine has faith the aroma of baked goodness will return soon to St. Ben’s. The ministry that has produced 1.8 million loaves of bread, he says, is too important to too many people.
“There is something about providing people with fresh bread,” he said. “When you take care of people’s basic needs, it is very good. There’s also the idea that it’s fresh – and you’re taking an interest in these people. You’re not giving them hand-me-downs. They’ve had enough hand-me-
To donate to the “Pennies for Bread” program, go to www.helptheabbey.com.