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