The Benedictines' Daily Bread
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LIANE HANSEN, host:
When the monks of St. Vincent Archabbey finish morning prayer, they head for breakfast. On the dining room sideboard, one can find St. Vincent bread made from flour ground in the monastery's gristmill.
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HANSEN: One monk is assigned to run and maintain a system of belts, levers and pulleys that sends raw wheat to a spot between two huge ancient flint stones.
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HANSEN: Which turn it into coarse particles or a fine white powder. The 155-year-old building is on the National Register of Historic Places. And many visitors are drawn to the mill's unique architecture. There is no water wheel. Power was supplied by steam boilers. The water came from a stream under the mill and was heated with coal mined on the archabbey grounds. Steam gave way to electricity in the 1950s.
From the outside, the gristmill looks simple. Our guide, Father Thomas, says its construction was not.
FATHER THOMAS: The type of wood that is used, oak, chestnut - you don't have a whole lot of chestnut that is used at this point in time. So, when you look at the original section of this building, that middle section, if you notice some of the beam work, they're solid beams. There's no such thing as nailing the boards together to get a beam. And also, it's put together with wooden pegs. You're not looking at nails in that original part of the building. And actually, with age, the wooden pegs solidify in there - much more durable.
HANSEN: And were there different kinds of flour that were milled here?
FATHER THOMAS: The basic grains, you know, buckwheat, rye, corn, oats, barley. At this point in time, we don't grind all of those all the time. I mean, our primary, of course, is the wheat. And the stones that we have here, which are a very valuable part of this mill, we grind the wheat with those stones.
BROTHER FRANCIS: Hello, my name is Brother Francis, a monk here at St. Vincent's Archabbey. I'm the miller, and I grind the wheat into flour for the gift shop and for any other special orders.
HANSEN: Are you going to take us in to…
BROTHER FRANCIS: Yes.
HANSEN: …your place of work?
BROTHER FRANCIS: Well, I will.
HANSEN: I'll follow you through that door.
BROTHER FRANCIS: Okay.
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BROTHER FRANCIS: I'll take you to the heart of the mill, which is the stones. As Father Thomas alluded to, these are the original stones. They came from France, and they were installed in 1854. There were three sets of stones at one time, but right now we use one set of stones and these others are just for demonstration.
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BROTHER FRANCIS: Now, what you see here at the bottom stays stationary. That's half a stone - each weigh about, I think, a ton. The grain, after it's been cleaned, goes in between the - into the middle of the top stone…
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BROTHER FRANCIS: …finds its way into these grooves at the bottom of this stone. It's cut into flour, finds its way to the outside edge. Now, if we want to bag whole wheat flour, we collect the flour at this point. And when we make white flour, it goes upstairs to the sifting process. So, basically, it's clean, grind and sift.
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HANSEN: I had read that there was an alarm on the stones if they weren't staying flat enough.
BROTHER FRANCIS: That is a danger in mills. The dust particles can create an explosive atmosphere under right conditions. So, we do have an alarm system whenever a lever is weighted down by the grain. If for some reason there's no grain in this hopper, that lever would lift up and activate the alarm system.
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BROTHER FRANCIS: Which warn the miller to shut everything down.
HANSEN: The gristmill produces about seven to 800 pounds of flour a month. Some of it is sold in the gristmill's gift shop. A local community of Carmelite nuns purchase some to make communion wafers, and it's used to make St. Vincent bread for the monks' table. The monks also used to make beer.
Its founder, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, was, after all, from Bavaria where beer was a basic part of monastic life. So, the Benedictine community at St. Vincent built a brewery. Again, Father Thomas.
FATHER THOMAS: Was not well received in this area because the Benedictines themselves was a foreign thing coming to this area, let alone, who are you, what are you and the fact that you're bringing beer there, also.
HANSEN: It coincided with the temperance movement here in the United States.
FATHER THOMAS: Correct, correct.
HANSEN: Yes. It used to be known as St. Vincent's Beer. It was described in the tabloids as holy beer. The Order of St. Benedict initials, OSB, I believe, in the tabloids, they referred to you as the Order of Sacred Beer.
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FATHER THOMAS: Of course.
HANSEN: What happened to the brewery?
FATHER THOMAS: At a certain point in time, well beyond, well after Prohibition, the brewery was burned.
HANSEN: There's a legend that the recipe and some of the equipment was given to the Rolling Rock Company, who makes beer (unintelligible).
FATHER THOMAS: And indeed it is a legend.
HANSEN: It is a legend? It is not true?
FATHER THOMAS: Correct.
HANSEN: Does the recipe for St. Vincent's Beer still exist?
FATHER THOMAS: Which answer would you like?
HANSEN: The one that is true.
FATHER THOMAS: Well, there still is a recipe.
HANSEN: But it's in hiding?
FATHER THOMAS: There's still - yes. It's not accessible. How's that?
HANSEN: There is a bar in the gristmill in the basement where the boilers used to be. After the renovation of the gristmill that added a museum and gift shop, Father Paul Taylor, once the miller, conceived the idea of a coffee house.
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HANSEN: He teamed up with a micro-roaster in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and a student from St. Vincent College - built on the monastery grounds in Latrobe -to design it. Students now run it. Ed Moss, a senior economics major, told us that the space fills both a want and a need.
Mr. ED MOSS: Because you have those places on campus, like the student union and the cafeteria and the weight room, but it's not like, they're not totally for the students. It's always partly administration. This is student-run, student-designed, student-managed. It's for the students; it's for us. It's like our place on campus that, really, no one could take away from us.
HANSEN: There's a small stone patio outside with cafe tables and chairs. A picnic table overlooks the monastery's wetlands, which are beautifully recovering from the effects of the old coal mine.
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HANSEN: Walking through the screen door is like entering a cave. It's cool. Comfy couches ring the room. The lighting is low. There's Internet access and a litany of hot and frozen drinks. A sign near the cash register points out that monk's bread is available on Sundays. Bags of St. Lazarus coffee - guaranteed to wake you from the dead - and other heavenly brands are available for purchase any time.
The Gristmill Coffee House is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., although students have been known to linger. On weekday mornings, Latrobe's commuters can get a cup of coffee for a dollar.
Our barista, political science and religion major, Ryan Hrobak, says the Gristmill Coffee House also offers something intangible: A modern chapter in the history of St. Vincent Archabbey.
Mr. RYAN HROBAK: Students, people from the community, people come down here just to hang out and talk. All the baristas will, you know, carry on a conversation. It's kind of like a bartender without the alcohol. Kids will come just - they'll just come down here to study or we'll have concerts. And then, like, Ed and I will sometimes will stay here till, like, two or three in the morning, like, if we have to study or something. We just lock the door and it's our place.
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HANSEN: Do any of the monks come down here and get coffee?
Mr. HROBAK: Yeah, some of them do.
Mr. MOSS: I think I was outside working the one afternoon, like a Sunday afternoon, and my parents came down and they came down to get coffee. And we come inside and you look, every table at the gristmill there was a monk with some kind of family member or community member. And my dad looks at me and he goes, I can't believe how many monks are down here. I'm, like, this is probably the only place you'll ever get to just interact like friends with the monks. So, it's kind of neat.
HANSEN: Hospitality is a cornerstone of Benedictine life. And the gristmill is one more place in the community of St. Vincent Archabbey where it is practiced daily.
In July, the community celebrated the 200th birthday of its founder, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, by welcoming guests from his native Bavaria. The newest addition to the campus in Latrobe, Pennsylvania is the Fred Rogers Community Center. The late Mr. Rogers was a neighbor.
And now that August is here, the monks are accommodating fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Super Bowl-winning football team is once again holding training camp on a hill overlooking the basilica.
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HANSEN: You can see pictures from St. Vincent Archabbey on our blog, npr.org/soapbox. Our feature on the gristmill was produced by Gemma Watters with help from Latrobe native Brent Baughman.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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