Divine inspiration yields black ink for monks
MONROE COUNTY, Wis. - Nearly a decade ago, a small group of monks in this rural stretch of western Wisconsin realized that they might have been too successful at following a vow of poverty.
Their income a pittance, their home desperately in need of repair, and with few prospects for help, the six monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank prayed for divine intervention - and brainstormed within the brotherhood for businesses they might start.
One day as the Rev. Bernard McCoy was printing out entrepreneurial ideas on the monastery's aging computer, an idea came to him: Ink - for printer cartridges.
"Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers were charged with making ink and creating the tools for illuminating manuscripts," said McCoy, 40, chief executive of the company they would found. "We figured, 'Why can't we do the same thing now?' " Today, thanks to LaserMonks Inc., which sells computer printing and office supplies over the Internet - the abbey is rich. LaserMonks pulled in about $4 million in sales last fiscal year, and is expected to reach nearly $7 million in 2007.
The bounty has raised a strange dilemma. It has allowed the monastery to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofit groups around the world. But it also has brought a standard of living that could be seen as excessive - for monks, at least.
They own a plane to take them to the motivational speeches they give around the country to would-be entrepreneurs. They bought two purebred Peruvian Paso horses. They've built a private art studio for one monk with a talent for oil painting, and a well-stocked wood shop for another skilled in sculpture. They've splurged on an elaborate model train set and matching 1950s river town in the basement.
How, the monks now regularly ask themselves, do you maintain a simple spiritual life when you've become a multimillionaire?
They answer most often with a grin and a shrug.
"Ours is supposed to be a life of detachment," said Brother David Klecker, 31. "But it's hard to be truly detached when you can be so comfortable."
Klecker should know. The abbey's success has allowed Klecker, trained as a software engineer, the luxury of buying digital video equipment and top-of-the-line editing software used by Hollywood visual-effects teams to create vocational videos for YouTube.
"I don't care whether you're an executive on Wall Street or a monk in the Midwest, the human spirit is, like it or not, pretty universal," said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.
"Just because you're a monk, it doesn't mean you're exempt from asking the same questions: How much do you enjoy your success? And how much do you give away to help others?"
Each morning, around 4, a digital bell gently tolls inside the two-story, tan-colored abbey, where bay windows look out onto rolling hills of emerald-green cornstalks and groves of oak trees.
On the second floor, the monks rise from their rough-hewn beds. Each sleeps inside a modest cell, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. In the dark, the men slip first into casual attire - jeans and button-down shirts on cooler days, shorts and T-shirts when the weather turns warm - and then don their robes. The white tunic, with full sleeves that drape over their hands like fabric bells, is paired with a simple black scapular.
They head downstairs to the abbey's main living area and chapel.
The order historically has been innovative, as members tended to come from well-educated, upper-class families, said E. Rozanne Elder, director of the Institute of Cistercian Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. In the Middle Ages, the order engineered water sources to generate power and create central heating systems. Cistercian monks became renowned for their hand-copying of religious texts.
"Whatever the most up-to-date way to support themselves, they did it," Elder said. "It was thought that no matter how marginal the land or opportunity, through thrift and hard work the Cistercians would make it prosperous."
Such was the case with the Cistercian abbey here in western Wisconsin. The order set up its first monastery in 1928 in Oconomowoc, Wis., about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. Drawn to the region for its rich farmland and strong Catholic community, the monks moved into a manor house and began raising livestock.
But as the area's population grew and nearby Oconomowoc Lake evolved into a popular tourist spot, the monks found it increasingly difficult to find solitude for prayer, McCoy said.
In the mid-1980s, a group of monks decided to relocate about 160 miles to the northwest, to a stretch of farmland outside the town of Sparta. They relied heavily on farm leases and renters to pay their bills, and used the profits to buy more real estate around their 600 acres.
But their quarters were far from comfortable. For years, their sanctuary was a double-wide trailer with a leaking roof.
McCoy led his brethren in trying to find a solution. Between prayers, they wandered along the gravel roads that crisscross their farmland and tossed around ideas.
It was while McCoy was printing out a list of proposals that inspiration hit. His printer ran out of ink. He began comparison shopping on the Internet for a replacement toner cartridge. The prices made him blanch: $200 or more for one. The most expensive would be nearly enough to cover one-third of the monthly grocery bill.
Calling vendors in search of a discount, McCoy discovered that the companies were willing to sell to him at a discount if he bought in bulk, just as they would to bigger retail chains.
The monks told local schools and churches about their plan to get cheap ink, and launched a not-for-profit company to place a group order.
Word spread, and soon the abbey's phone rang steadily with Catholic schools and rural parishes seeking savings.