Brother James looked just the way I would picture a monk looking. Tallish with an angular face, he wore the kind of retro heavy-rimmed glasses that aren’t really retro, merely that old. His soft caring voice spoke with the peaceful contentedness so appropriate for the part you’d swear a Hollywood casting agent placed him. Only you wouldn’t swear here – and here is about as far from the superficial celebrity of Tinsel Town as you could get.
Where exactly is “here”? It’s the Abbey of the Genesee located in the hamlet of Piffard in the Town of York, Livingston County. About a mile west of the Genesee River, this community of Trappist monks belongs to the Roman Catholic order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Abbey of the Genesee came about from a gift of Porter (a cousin of the Wadsworth family) and Gabrielle Chanler, who, in 1949, donated the land to Dom James Fox, abbot of the Abbey of the Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. The Wadsworth family had lived in the area since 1790, and the Chanlers wanted to bring a monastery to the Genesee Valley. James Kearney, then Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, embraced this request and the Abbey of the Genesee opened its doors in May, 1951.
We traveled to the Abbey on a hot, sunny, summer solstice. As the crow flies, it’s only a few miles from Interstate 390, although it is located – in keeping with the monastic theme – on a road less traveled. Lack of confidence in our maps caused us to eschew the direct flight of the crow, opting instead for the more circuitous route of the vulture. An attempted short-cut transformed a twenty minute hop into a forty-five minute excursion. After all, apparently roads less traveled also mean roads less likely to have road signs. Did I mention the car lacked air conditioning? On the bright side, in our never ending search for River Road, we did discover an old B&O baggage car sitting by itself near some grain silo. Of course, in the false rush to get to the Abbey – no doubt inspired by the suspicion we were lost – we failed to record a picture of it.
Upon arrival, though, any tension derived from driving blind immediately dissipated – once we figured out what entrance was the correct one. Except for an incidental sign which modestly admits “Bread Store,” there are no other indications of such a shop, let alone the proper door to use for entry. We guessed the dark wooded double doors might provide the answer. It required a bit of strength to push the heavy doors. Once we entered, though, the overpowering aroma of the freshly baked bread sucked any temporal concerns from our minds, lifting the spirit and drawing the body towards the humble shop. We could taste the bread as we made our way through the lobby. We eagerly sought to purchase our consignment.
But not before we had a chance to speak to the tranquil Brother James. I asked him for a brochure and he gave me a computer generated trifold paper promoting the Abbey’s various retreats. With 2,400 acres of unspoiled woodland in the heart of, well, nowhere, the location had the quiet solitude of “retreat” written all over it. In fact, “quiet” seems a quite appropriate modifier, since one of the retreats features a silent house, where talking is limited only to the Speaking Room. When I queried if he had anything more substantive – and perhaps something that spoke of the famous bread – Brother James directed us to a seventeen minute movie.
The movie filled in more blanks. For example, we learned once the Roman Emperor Constantine I declared his Christianity, the Age of Martyrs passed but the need to emulate the martyrs had not. This in part led to the monastic movement. Soon, the rules of St. Benedict (he wrote a book on the monastic tradition called Rule) became the standard. In 1098AD, however, a group of monks left the French Benedictine monastery of Molesme and established a reform at Citeaux. For this they were later called “Cistercians” and they wanted to devote their lives to a greater degree of solitude, ease and self-reliance than had been common at the time. (Here’s a piece of interesting trivia: These are the guys who gave us St. Bernard.)
Naturally, I thought the name “Trappist” derived from their Kentucky origin. Silly me, I should have realized their Kentucky origin derived from their name. It turns out, in the late 1600’s, while French trappers were beginning to rile British settlers in the New World, the abbot of La Grande Trappe, Dom Armand de Rance, gave the order some much needed leadership. His followers became known as “Trappists.” They didn’t move to America (and their Kentucky location) until 1848, long after a young George Washington and the British rooted out the French fur trappers from the wilderness.
The only thing the movie mentioned about the famous Monk’s Bread, though, was it represented the “work” side of the “work and prayer” equation. One interesting thing mentioned about work in the film – since the monks have no money, they can’t buy gifts to show appreciation. Instead, they offer work.
But I was really more interested in the bread, so I cornered Brother James and got him to spill the beans. Apparently, the whole bread thing started as an in-house only venture. But then more and more people in the outside community began concocting ways to obtain the bread (no doubt lured by the luscious smell of the bakery). The monks decided to sell it to the public as a fundraising effort. Today, sales of the bread support the Abbey.
The process of making the bread starts at midnight and goes until roughly five o’clock in the morning. The monks work in shifts so no one has to pull an all-nighter. The monk’s offer several different varieties of loafs. We bought the white bread, the maple cinnamon, the raison and the sunflower bran. We couldn’t wait until we got back, so we started eating them on the way home. The white bread tasted just like the monastery (or was it the monastery smelled just like the white bread?). The maple cinnamon reminded me of French Toast, although with a lot less of that annoying syrupy stickiness. (My son finished that loaf by the next day.) After eating a slice of raison bread, I decided it was perfect for toasting and buttering and I wouldn’t waste any more of it ‘til the next morn. The sunflower bran was purchased for a friend, so I didn’t have any of that one, but, judging by the other three, I’m sure it was great.
Although the Monk’s sell the bread (coast to coast) through the internet and at their Abbey, Brother James told me that nearly 98% of their sales occur through their distribution partners. This would include stores like Wegman’s, Tops and Wal-Mart locations throughout Western New York (primarily Buffalo and Rochester) and as far east as Syracuse. Still, there’s nothing like buying bread from the bakery and traveling through the heart of Western New York makes it all the more worthwhile. If you’re traveling to visit Letchworth State Park, be sure to include the Abbey of the Genesee on your itinerary. Just remember one thing – get a good map and don’t take any “short-cuts” unless you’re absolutely positively sure it really is a short cut.