Every Monday and Thursday at 3 a.m., two brothers at Saint Joseph Abbey begin baking bread in a tradition that has long sustained monks and seminarians at the abbey. And, for the last 20 years, it has fed the poor, too.
The Benedictine monks who came to the United States from Switzerland in the 1850s to found the Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana brought their bread-making tradition.
The Pennies for Bread program at St. Joseph’s currently provides about 1,500 loaves a week to nearly 30 charity organizations spread across the northshore and the New Orleans area, such as Bridge House, Covington Food Bank, Odyssey House, Ozanam Inn and the Salvation Army. With their bread provided, these organizations can use their “bread money” for other items.
The program began in 1990 when Saint Joseph Seminary College alumnus Chris Larsen, who worked in New Orleans, decided he wanted to provide a service to the myriad of homeless people he noticed sleeping in the park near his office. He remembered the tradition of receiving freshly baked bread at the abbey and founded Pennies for Bread. The name is not based on the actual cost of the loaves, but rather on a fundraising model: donating just a few pennies can make a difference. Donors are encouraged to pledge a certain number of pennies for each loaf baked annually.
The bread-making tradition is even older than the abbey itself. The Benedictine monks who came to the United States from Switzerland in the 1850s to found the Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana brought their bread-making tradition. These monks then founded St. Joseph’s in 1889, and the tradition followed, too.
On baking days, two monks begin the process at 3 a.m. in a small milking parlor that has been renovated into a bakery. Two other team members join later to assist. The brothers are busy mixing and baking until about 9 a.m., when they move to cutting and bagging the loaves and loading them into a van for delivery. They also rely on two groups of volunteers from the area.
While the monks use a traditional recipe, director Fr. Augustine Foley admits it’s probably changed some over the decades. “The number one recipe for anything is the cook,” says Fr. Foley, who has overseen the Pennies for Bread program for 18 years and has participated in the baking since the program started. “The difference in technology and the difference in people make a difference.”
The program is funded primarily through individual and corporate sponsors, but with many residents feeling the effects of the economic downturn and the 2005 hurricanes, Fr. Foley says the need is great. “We’re seeing an increase of need on the northshore.” There’s a bigger need now for donations, too, he says. Transporting the bread around St. Tammany and to New Orleans is pricey, and the cost of ingredients continues to rise.
The Pennies for Bread program is an important part of the monks’ work for the community. “As a monastery we basically do all our work from our home base, but we want to reach out to people in the city,” Fr. Foley says. And working together as a team to bake the bread is rewarding, too. “A lot of our work, even though we live together, tends to be solo,” like celebrating Mass, teaching a class or giving a lecture. “But here you have us working together.”
To donate, or for more information, go to penniesforbread.comFiled under: Culinary Arts, Food and Drink, Giving Back, January-February 2011, Worthy Causes