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NEW SKETE: WORK AND PRAYER

From the Bennington Banner, July 28, 2007. Third of three parts.

By Mark E. Rondeau

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. - The Christian monastic ideal has always been focused around prayer and work.

For the monks and nuns of New Skete, prayer, worship and a life in common were a given from the start of their communities in the 1960s. How they would earn a living was more of a question mark and evolved over time.

A major task in the early days consisted in building a monastery on the side of Two-Top Mountain. The monks started building on the mountain in 1967 and moved there in 1968, said Brother Peter, one of the founding members.

"We worked really hard. I was like 25 at the time and had a lot of energy," he said. "I hadn't used a hammer, I was more of a pencil-pusher, as some people would say. So I just started using a hammer, getting the grip right, hitting the nail right."

The monks built their first church, The Temple of the Transfiguration, entirely by their own labor in 78 working days and it was dedicated in 1970. When this first church eventually proved to be too small, Holy Wisdom Temple was built in 1983, with the help of a contractor. Brother Marc, one of the founding monks, is a self-taught architect and did all the architectural designs for the new temple, said Brother Stavros, another of the founders. The temple is built in the basilica style similar to many ancient churches in the Byzantine tradition.

From 1966 to 1969 the monks had a full-scale farm, with goats, horses and pheasants on hand at one point or other.

"When we first started, we had dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens. We had Old MacDonald's farm. We had to care for them. When they got sick we had to care for them then and call the veterinarian," Brother Peter said. "I loved the work."

Because the property on Two-Top Mountain could not sustain a farm, the monks eventually made the decision to enter professional dog breeding and training, something they had been thinking about for a while.

"A lot of things we do just came in by happenstance," Brother Peter said. "We had a dog when we started - his name was Kyr. We got him from the seeing-eye kennel in Morristown, N.J."

Another of the founding monks, Brother Thomas, worked with the dog, a German shepherd.

"He was very good with dogs, and he trained him very well. He didn't beg at the table, he would lie down and behave himself, and then we lost him," Brother Peter said. "So Brother Thomas said, 'Why don't we get another dog?' So we got a female, and then the issue was: 'Well, she's (got) a good pedigree, why don't we breed her?' So that's how our breeding started - just a little thing like that.

"And Brother Thomas really was the one who ... made the whole idea seemingly worthwhile to everybody," he said.

New Skete has been breeding German shepherds since 1968 and training dogs of all breeds since 1969, said Brother Christopher, now head dog trainer.

He estimated that he trains between 30 and 40 dogs a year. "As far as breeding goes, it really depends," he said. "Mother Nature is entirely in charge of that. But let's say a rough estimate of maybe 50 puppies a year or something would not be totally exceptional."

St. Bernards set a precedent

Breeding and training dogs is not a novel occupation for monks or members of religious orders. In the Catholic Church, the Canons of St. Augustine have raised St. Bernards in the Swiss Alps for more than 200 years.

"The dogs are still bred there, although they no longer perform their well-known rescues of travelers lost in the Pass - airplanes and snowmobiles have limited the need for dogs in that capacity," according to the New Skete Monks' popular book "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend."

"In Tibet a quite different group of monks developed the Lhasa Apso dogs," the books adds. "They raised them in their monasteries and frequently gave them as gifts to nobles.

"We can attest that raising and training dogs fits into monastic life very well. Dog care takes a lot of labor and affection, and monks usually have both in abundance," according to the book. "On another level the dog typifies in many ways the mature monk: loyal, steadfast, willing to please, willing to learn."

The titles of two of the monks' books - "How to be Your Dog's Best Friend" and "I and Dog" - indicate their approach to dog training. It's about building a relationship.

"It's just obedience training, which we really feel is the foundation to a good relationship between a human being and their dog," said Brother Christopher during a recent dog training demonstration at the monastery. "You have to have a foundation from which to develop the type of relationship that all of us dream about."

A spiritual aspect

Brother Stephen, a member of the New Skete companions community, helped train dogs for six years. He said there is no specific spirituality of dog training, but it does have a spiritual aspect.

"The spirituality is a relationship with another creature, be it human or animal, cat or dog. And the relationship can be communicated and it can be positive," he said. "With every dog that I've ever come in contact with, no matter how bad the first impression is, within a few days, there is a relationship, which I can sense. And then it develops."

The Monks of New Skete build a relationship with the German shepherds they breed in part by caring for them and incorporating them in0to their monastic routine.

"Each brother is responsible for one or two dogs, and each brother is responsible for the training of that dog," said Brother Christopher. "Dogs are pretty much integrated into our life. So if you come to dinner at New Skete it would not be uncommon for you to see five dogs, for example, stretched out on the ground on down stays while we eat.

"Dogs also live with us in terms of sleeping," he said. "Not on the bed, but in my bedroom, for example, I have two dog beds. I want my dogs there at night."

How does the monks' spirituality translate itself into the dog training?

"There's definitely a spiritual dimension that's present in our approach to dog training," Brother Christopher said. "Our spirituality, being a contemplative monastic spirituality, aims to basically unify the whole of our life. Part of that would be trying to be conscious and aware of God's presence in every situation.

"Certainly that would be the case in my work with the dogs," he said. "The dogs have a very unique way of connecting us with the awareness of God's presence, not only in the dog itself but just in the whole natural world."

This year the monks and their training methods have received national exposure with the series "Divine Canine" on the Animal Planet network. It features Brother Christopher working with dogs and their owners to resolve problem behaviors. People at New Skete seem just as pleased with the monks' induction in March into the International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame.

Beyond breeding and working with dogs, New Skete also sells liturgical books, dog training books and videos, dog biscuits, dog leads, gourmet smoked meats and cheeses, pancake syrup, and bean soup mix. Next to dogs, however, the most famous New Skete product is the cheesecake made by the nuns.

A way to make a living

Much as the monks came to dog training, the nuns started making cheesecake as a way to make a living.

"We were trying to figure out some way of being able to work in our monastery, and arrange our own time for work," said Sister Cecelia, one of the original nuns and prioress of the community. "Half of us when we first came here worked outside the monastery, and half of us worked inside."

At first, the work inside was mainly sewing, she said. "That just didn't pan out because people couldn't really pay. They were looking for home sewing instead of custom tailoring," she said. "And so we found housecleaning to be the next best thing, rather than (for instance) working in a hospital at a regular five-day-a-week, eight-hours-a-day job. Because (with) housecleaning, several different people could substitute for one another if something came up.

"We could probably arrange for big feast days not to have work on that day, but to clean their house another day," she said. "But we were still looking for something that we could do in the house, in the monastery itself, where we wouldn't have to go out.

"So we just slowly started doing it. One of the sisters baked apple pies and cheesecakes for about two or three restaurants in the area, and it seemed pretty regular. So we said, 'Oh, maybe this is something we can do.' "

Across the United States

Indeed, it was something they could do quite well. Today, the cheesecakes are distributed across the U.S. through mail order. Restaurants and distributors also come to Our Lady of the Sign Monastery to pick up the cakes.

In fact, during the interview for this article, a man driving a delivery truck rang the front door bell, and Sister Cecelia was the only person available to answer it. After a minute or so she politely excused herself to go see if she could help him.


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Religion



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Brother Christopher and Pica give a demonstration of dog training at New Skete. (Mark E. Rondeau)

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