Monks and nuns make big business in France

Above, employees manufacturing cosmetics products use a closing and filling machine at the Saint-Vincent abbey in Chantelle. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2017
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Monks and nuns make big business in France

CHANTELLE, France: After prayers at the Chantelle Abbey in Allier, central France, a marketing meeting between the abbey’s nuns and their employees discusses the latest orders for its on-site soap and cosmetics products, the delivery destination: Germany.
The community of Benedictine sisters has been manufacturing cosmetics since 1954, after two sisters, a chemist and a mathematician, began the practice.
Body lotions, shower gels and moisturizers are among the products made in the abbey’s own laboratory, where the nuns acknowledge they must now make time for prayer and business.
“A company, must develop or it dies,” said Mother Pascale, dressed in a veil and scapular while supervising production.
“We have needed to develop, to make more turnover and to modernize our clientele,” she added, sounding more business executive than spiritual leader.
For the Benedictines, manual labor is imperative to respect the rule of Saint Benedict, which dates back to the sixth century.
As long as it is not during the hours of prayer, the sisters can work on the products, from conception to packaging.
Even Sister Marie-Suzanne, at the age of 97, and dean of the abbey, is involved in the work.
But in order to meet the demand, the abbey has hired some 10 non-religious employees to help with the production.
“The purpose is not to look for money to grow rich. We are not planning to do a stock listing! But to make a living with a reasonable margin,” said Mother Pascale.
Sold in monasteries, boutique shops and on the Internet — the abbey even has a Facebook page — the cosmetics are mainly created from natural products and generated €1 million in sales last year.
Much of the money is used to renovate and repair the 7th century abbey’s many beautiful, yet old, ramparts and monastic buildings.
“We live in beauty but the renovations are expensive. We have redone the roof, and the rooms we live in... but it never ends,” sighed the abbess.
The market for abbey-made products is far from unique to France, and is at least as developed in Germany and to a lesser extent in Britain.
Across France, some 250 to 300 communities dedicated to prayer sell products or services.
From biscuits to jam and honey, to gluten-free products and organic vegetables, men and women of the cloth have expanded into a variety of businesses.
Citeaux Abbey, in Burgundy, known for its washed rind cheese made from cow’s milk, posted €1.2 million in sales last year.
Much of the cheese is sold on-site but also in places as far away as Dubai, Montreal and Tokyo.
“Fifteen days ago, I received a call from a company that helps businesses in difficulty,” explained Father Jean-Claude.
“I told him: Yes, I have a problem. We produce 120,000 cheeses a year, but we have demand for more than 160,000!“
To protect the image of their products and avoid unfair competition, more than 200 communities have formed an association and created the “Monastic” mark to certify the authenticity of products from monasteries.
But despite the growth of some of their businesses, some analysts argue that many monasteries lack opportunities to expand.
“The vast majority of communities have modest productions because the place of the work remains very limited,” said Marie-Catherine Paquier, author of a thesis on the purchase of monastic products.
The total market for “Made in Abbeys” products is estimated to be €75 million a year, she said.
If the market expands, business-minded nuns and monks may increasingly have to reconcile spirituality with potential profitability.
Mother Pascale at Chantelle recognizes it could pose a problem, but insists: “The priority, is to look for the Lord.”


What We Are Reading Today: Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History

Updated 16 August 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History

In her recent book Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History, Mona Hassan explores the myriad meanings of the caliphate for Muslims around the world through the analytical lens of two key moments of loss in the thirteenth and twentieth centuries.

Through extensive primary-source research, Hassan explores the rich constellation of interpretations created by religious scholars, historians, musicians, statesmen, poets, and intellectuals, says a review on the Cornell University website. 

Hassan fills a scholarly gap regarding Muslim reactions to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad in 1258 and challenges the notion that the Mongol onslaught signalled an end to the critical engagement of Muslim jurists and intellectuals with the idea of an Islamic caliphate. 

She also situates Muslim responses to the dramatic abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 as part of a longer trajectory of transregional cultural memory, revealing commonalities and differences in how modern Muslims have creatively interpreted and reinterpreted their heritage.