Iowa’s oldest monastery may be smaller in size but Christmas is still a special time for the monks of New Melleray near Dubuque. The abbot, Father Brendan Freeman, says back when they spoke little and followed a more ascetic lifestyle, the joke was that the only difference between Christmas and every other day of the year was “raisins in the bread,” but now they invite members of the community to a Christmas-eve service, and host a big Christmas Day dinner. Father Brendan says the abbey was founded in 1849 when Iowa was a brand-new state. At one time there were 150 monks; today there are 35 and they make their living farming as they have for 150 years on 1800 acres of land and Iowa’s second-largest privately-owned woodland. But as everyone else in Iowa knows, farming’s not very profitable these days, so Father Brendan says the monks tried to branch out and find another way to help support themselves. They looked at their forest and decided with the pine and red oak there they could make coffins — and he says about three years ago the monks started a mail-order business. It’s been popular as word of mouth spreads about coffins built by the members of the religious order. They’re striving for a simple pine or walnut box, since he says people have always admired the way monks were buried with simplicity and dignity, and business has been good. The monks sold 59 coffins in October alone. You can see their handiwork at the website www.trappistcaskets.com.
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