Nearly two years ago, the quiet lives of Trappist monks in South Carolina were disrupted by accusations they were mistreating chickens in their egg business. The monks say they did nothing wrong but now, because of the glare of publicity, are turning to new ways to earn their daily bread.
MONCKS CORNER, S.C. — Nearly two years ago, the quiet lives of Trappist monks in South Carolina were disrupted by accusations they were mistreating chickens in their egg business. The monks say they did nothing wrong but now, because of the glare of publicity, are turning to new ways to earn their daily bread.
The monks plan to end their egg operation in January and are considering alternatives that seem well suited to the gentle rhythms of Mepkin Abbey. One likely possibility is growing mushrooms for the vibrant restaurant scene in Charleston, some 30 miles to the south.
"We're very hopeful," Father Stan Gumula, abbot of the monastery, said in a recent interview. "We are not yet ready to say, 'Here we are folks, find them in your grocery store.' But that's where it is moving."
The 24 monks at Mepkin, members of an order founded in 1098, work to provide income for the abbey for expenses such as food, utilities and health care.
The egg farm, which Gumula once said produced 9 million eggs annually, was targeted in 2007 by animal welfare activists who claimed it was a factory farm using debeaked hens crammed into small cages. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for a boycott, publicized what it said was undercover video of the abbey's operation and complained to federal and state agencies.
Mepkin said it was not doing anything wrong; the abbey said its operation met industry standards and was certified by the country's largest trade group for commercial egg farmers.
A Federal Trade Commission spokesman said the agency took no enforcement action after the PETA complaint. And the state Agriculture Department's most recent inspection — last week — found the monks' operation in compliance with agriculture regulations, a spokeswoman said.
Even so, the monks said they decided to get out of the egg business because the publicity had disrupted their quiet lives of prayer and contemplation.
They've considered almost 40 other ways to support themselves, including making wine and beer, gathering honey and growing bamboo for use in construction. The abbey now is experimenting with growing oyster mushrooms to sell in local stores and restaurants.
The monks also are considering building a columbarium, where the ashes of loved ones are kept. Gumula said the grounds of the monastery, which sits on a tree-shrouded bluff overlooking the Cooper River, is an ideal place for such a facility.
"This is a wonderful place for that to happen and it cuts across all kinds of denominational lines," said Gumula. "And those with no denomination, no religious affiliation, would still like to be at Mepkin and have their ashes here."
Mepkin was founded in 1949, though nearby Moncks Corner dates to the first half of the 18th century. The town itself has nothing to do with monks: It was named for Thomas Monck, a local landowner.
Set under whispering oaks, the abbey includes a chapel, the Clare Boothe Luce Library and its religious holdings, a small store, gardens open to the public and a new memorial garden dedicated to nine Charleston firefighters who perished in a furniture store blaze last year. Each fall, hundreds of visitors pass through the library to see the abbey's extensive collection of Christmas crGeches.
Since the abbey was established, the monks have worked at everything from making bread and cinnamon buns to selling milk and, for now, eggs.
Gumula said he still is angry about the egg controversy.
"I felt violated because the person who came, who I still do not know, came under false pretenses," he said. "Mepkin stands for the truth. Mepkin stands for honesty and integrity, and for someone to come in and do this, yes, I felt violated."
"If we were just a mom and pop I would continue to fight them," Gumula said. "But they were using us for their own purposes and they were using the church and I couldn't allow that to happen."
PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said he found out about the egg farm after a friend visited Mepkin and asked the monks about their work. Friedrich said PETA sent someone undercover after contacting the monastery without response.
"If people are abusing animals and the only way to expose the abuse is to go undercover, then we have to do that," he said. "The church is having problems enough without adding cruelty to animals to the mix, but it would have been unchristian to remain silent."
But the head of a regional grocery store chain said the PETA boycott seemed to backfire because locals support the abbey.
"I got a lot of e-mails from people who said they had never bought the eggs before but they would make sure they bought them now," said David Schools, president of the Piggly Wiggly South Carolina company, which sells Mepkin eggs in more than 100 supermarkets in South Carolina and southeastern Georgia.
He added the chain is looking forward to selling the abbey's mushrooms.
"We have seen the samples and we have seen the packaging," Schools said. "We're willing to sell as many mushrooms as we can get and can sell. We're willing to do whatever it takes to make that work."