BETHLEHEM — The nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis chant the Mass and full Divine office each day, spending considerable time in their chapel and church.
But their mission to “pray without ceasing” includes praising God through the manual work that sustains their community and the 450 acres of land on which they live. There are tools to be repaired, breads to be baked, candles to be made, sheep to be shorn.
At this time of year, when the harvest is in and the demands of the farm lessen, some of the nuns are able to carve out time to create beautiful handmade items for the Abbey’s annual Christmas Sale, which begins this year on Friday, November 25, in the Monastic Art Shop and continues throughout the Advent season.
Mother Jadwiga, Mother Lioba, Mother Elizabeth, Sister Gregory and Sister John Mary are just a few of the women in this contemplative community whose work is represented in the sale.
As the abbey’s shepherdess, Mother Jadwiga cares for a flock of 14 Shetland sheep. She manages their pastures, their daily feeding, their medical care, their shearing, their breeding and lambing.
“All the wool comes to my studio,” she said. “I skirt the fleeces to get out the short pieces and bits of vegetation. I keep some that I want to work with, but the vast majority is sent to a custom spinning mill that spins exactly to our specifications and we get our own wool back.”
Registered Shetland sheep come in a broad range of colors, Mother Jadwiga explained.
“I try and have our yarn made in a way that keeps the dark brown together, the light brown, the gray, the black and the white, to get a range of natural colors,” she said. “I’ve also started to dabble in dyes, primarily natural dyes from the Abbey land — marigold, black walnut, bindweed, which makes a nice spring green, ragweed, which makes an olive green. Lichens make beautiful gold colors.”
Mother Jadwiga uses the mill-spun yarns to weave scarves, shawls and some tapestries that are sold in the art shop. She takes inspiration from the landscape around her — the leaves on the trees, the snow on the ground, the blue jays, hawks and wild turkeys that share the land.
Inspiration for a design might come from the subtle sequence of colors in the stripe of a bird’s feather — and sometimes, she will attach the feather to the finished work “so the person will know from whence it came.”
Mother Jadwiga also works in the Abbey infirmary, as a seamstress and as part of the formation group that helps guide young members. But it’s clear she loves her work with the sheep.
“Having sheep keeps us in touch with the farmers of the world,” she said, “especially the shepherds and pastoral people.”
The Abbey’s Christmas sale will include Mother Jadwiga’s woven scarves, a small blanket and a number of sheepskins.
Mother Lioba studied with a candlemaker for one year to learn to make the liturgical candles used in the Abbey church, Jesu Fili Mariae. In between liturgical seasons, she is able to make a supply of candles to be sold at the Christmas Sale.
Mother Lioba’s work is dependent on some of the tiniest but most industrious workers at the Abbey — its bees.
“We have a beekeeper here,” she said. “Mother Ozanne is considered one of the best beekeepers in Connecticut. My favorite thing is to pour and make 100 percent beeswax candles.
“Number one,” she said, “it comes from our land. It’s a way for us to elevate elements of our land and offer that to people.
“And number two, you breathe what you burn. With paraffin candles, you’re breathing a petroleum product into your body. Beeswax is a natural product. It also has a greater stability. Beeswax candles are longer burning, and they keep their form.”
For the Christmas sale, Mother Lioba will make sets of traditional Advent candles — 10-inch tapers, three violet and one pink — to be lit on the successive weeks of Advent.
“The idea really is to bring out a sense of increasing light, even though it’s getting darker outside as we approach the winter solstice,” she said. “The Advent wreath is a symbol that there is another light, and it’s growing.”
The candle collection will include Mother Lioba’s beeswax votives (meditation candles), handrolled beeswax tapers in forest green, as well as sweet little candles molded in the form of honeybears, lambs, roses and pinecones.
There will also be solid, long-lasting 7-inch pillars, also 100 percent beeswax, some plain and some embossed with a fern design.
“Sister Gregory is making beautiful wooden candleholders, hand-turned and polished, precisely to fit the pillars,” Mother Lioba said. “They’re made from wood from our land.”
When Sister Gregory first came to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in 2010, she worked in the woodlot, splitting and drying wood. Perhaps that’s where the seed was planted: the love of wood and the wish to create something beautiful from it.
About 18 months ago, when she asked to learn to woodturn, she came across an old lathe in the Abbey’s carpentry shop with a plaque from 1950 that read “In memory of Michael Healy.”
She was intrigued because Healy was her own last name. Further exploration turned up some tools that bore the name T. Healy. Sister Gregory’s father’s name was Tim Healy.
In need of a teacher, she turned to the Nutmeg Woodturners League. The late Buster Shaw of Bethel, a woodturning teacher at Brookfield Craft Center, offered to come to the Abbey to teach her the basics.
“Buster was so generous,” she said. “He taught me to work with precision and care and joy. He had high standards, but he taught me that working with wood could be fun.”
Buster came to the Abbey for a year, at no charge, and after he passed away, other league members continued to help. Southbury resident Jay Hockenberry donated an upgraded lathe. Don Metz of Woodbury began working with Sister Gregory on boxes and tool handles, and adding color and design.
Sister Gregory works with spalted maple, ash and cherry from the Abbey land. She says the design for the things she makes comes out of her hands, with considerable input from the wood itself.
“Sometimes you don’t know what’s inside the wood until you start coring it out and find all the markings you didn’t know were there,” she said. “I’ll have a design in mind, but the wood might have a different idea. In the end, it might be a little bit unexpected.”
For the Christmas Sale, Sister Gregory has created a series of lovely boxes suitable for holding paper clips, jewelry or “whatever is meaningful that people want to keep in a special place.” She has also made small bowls, honey dippers, and the candle holders designed to fit Mother Lioba’s candles.
“I do feel that each piece comes from a long line of generosity and joy,” she said. “Buster had a passion for keeping the craft of woodturning alive. It was a privilege to have had the experience of being his protege. And now, it’s a privilege to share the fruits of that relationship with the public, to offer them a piece of the Abbey that they can take home with them.
“That’s a deep part of our spirituality here.”
One of Sister Gregory’s honey dippers would be a perfect complement to the honey sold in the Monastic Art Shop. And the perfect complement to the honey would be a fragrant loaf of Mother Elizabeth’s healthy, crusty, full-flavored bread.
“I’ve been baking here for three years,” said Mother Elizabeth, one of three bakers at the Abbey. “Before that, I was in the dairy. But I was very much a bread baker before I entered. I spent most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay area, the artisan bread capital of the country.”
On an average day, the Abbey bakery might turn out 30 to 40 loaves of various kinds. The nuns who work there use a commercial mixer, but everything else is done by hand.
“Sister Jeanne Paul tends to focus on sweet egg breads,” said Mother Elizabeth. “I focus on artisanal breads. I do a lot of work in sourdough, Eastern European ryes and pumpernickel. I also bake ciabatta and focaccia.
“For the Christmas sale, I’ll do a nice honey-whole wheat, using the Abbey’s honey, and a country buttermilk, using our own buttermilk.”
The Abbey bakers use natural processes as much as possible.
“We don’t have a stone oven, but we do all our baking on a baking stone,” Mother Elizabeth explained. “We buy wheat berries at New Morning and stone-grind our own flour. We use as much natural yeast as possible, along with flour, water, and a little honey from our bees.
“It makes a very full and rustic flavor,” she said. “It’s not Wonder Bread. It’s real. Every loaf is different.”
Prior to joining the Abbey in 1997, Mother Elizabeth was a corporate lawyer on Wall Street and a law professor at Santa Clara University in California. But there is something about bread-baking that speaks to her heart.
“There’s something about the abundance of it that I respond to,” she said. “It’s similar to the cheese made here. It’s bringing something of the land to the people. That you want to do in abundance. It’s a way for us to offer ourselves to the public.”
Abbey breads will be available in the Monastic Art Shop beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving and continuing throughout the Christmas season.
Sister John Mary is one of three nuns who take care of the various aspects of managing the Monastic Art Shop. Her forte is “lotions and potions,” and this year she has expanded her repertoire to include lavender-scented cow’s milk soaps, made from the milk of the Abbey’s dairy herd, and honey soaps made with help from the Abbey bees.
The soaps are available in festive shapes suitable for gifting and come with muslin gift bags.
“We’ll also have the usual three perfumes,” Sister John Mary said, “Woodland, New Mown Hay and Benedict, along with rose mist, lavender mist, lemon lotion and silky rose lotion.”
The new products will join Abbey-made herbal teas and vinegars, herbal salad and soup blends, bath salts and the ever-popular “Shampooch” dog shampoo.
New this year, the shop will carry products from Bella Alpacas Farm in New Milford, including alpaca socks in various colors, herbal skin cream and lip balm, and the farm’s signature brew of fire cider.
Also new will be skin care products from True Moringa, made of an oil high in antioxidants that is said to minimize signs of aging, and glass Krono bead necklaces, both supplied by Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Stein of Bethlehem, currently serving in Ghana.
There will be copies of a new book, “Tooley Makes a Friend,” written by Ree Howell and illustrated by Mother Dolores Hart; as well as jams and jellies made by Mother Scholastica, stained glass birds by Mother Praxides, notecards featuring watercolors by Mother Simonetta and animal-themed Christmas ornaments made by rural women in Thailand.
Olivia Steen, a young friend of the Abbey, will supply handmade rosaries. A number of other religious items are offered as well, along with Lauren Ford cards, select books and more.
The Abbey Christmas Sale begins Friday, November 25, and continues through Christmas Eve in the Monastic Art Shop on the ground of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, 273 Flanders Rd.
Hours are 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 4 p.m. daily; closed Wednesday.
Those seeking additional information may call 203-266-7727.