- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

SPARTA, Wis. - Eight times a day, the Rev. Bernard McCoy solemnly chants prayers in Latin from 100-year-old books in the chapel of his monastery.

Then it’s back to his computer and telephone, to run LaserMonks.

Father McCoy and four other monks who have vowed a life of prayer, austerity and charity sell refilled inkjet and laser-printer cartridges from an Internet site and telephone mail-order center at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank.

“You get quality products at a great savings. We do good work with the extra income,” Father McCoy said. “Plus the monks pray for you. I don’t think Staples ever offered to do that.”

The Roman Catholic monks hope their 2-year-old business will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for them to do good deeds, such as support a camp for children with HIV or a computer school for street children in Vietnam.

“It is kind of the little Davids that came along to play in the Goliath world,” Father McCoy said.

Chester Gillis, theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, said LaserMonks is consistent with monastic ideals and traditions that focus on prayer and work.

“All they are doing is adopting to the contemporary technology,” he said. “If raisin bread is not selling, used laser cartridges refilled might.”

LaserMonks sells printer goods made by others at prices 30 percent to 90 percent lower than those offered at retail stores, Father McCoy said.

The charismatic, savvy, 36-year-old North Carolina native sees LaserMonks as continuing a tradition started hundreds of years ago when monks copied manuscripts for people.

The idea has the blessing of the Rev. Josef Tomann Meinrad, procurator-general of the Cistercian order’s headquarters near the Vatican. He said he favors anything that promotes the Christian message or provides people with information, which LaserMonks appears to do.

Last year, LaserMonks generated about $500,000 in sales, enough for a $30,000 profit, Father McCoy said. He hopes to at least quadruple sales this year.

“I almost feel bad making that much. I do,” he said, laughing. “But we have a lot of things to do, a lot of people we want to help.”

Monks elsewhere are also employed online, doing things like cataloging, designing Web sites and editing manuscripts, said the Rev. William Skudlarek, an assistant administrator at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., one of the largest monasteries in the world, with 175 monks.

Some monasteries continue with the more traditional jobs of baking bread or fruitcakes, but some in Europe are making specialty soaps or medicinal wines, he said. An Oregon monastery runs a wine warehouse, and one in Iowa builds caskets.

LaserMonks makes no products but markets and distributes those made by others, making the idea somewhat different, Father Skudlarek said.

“This is kind of the modernized, updated version of the old live-by-the-labor-of-your-hands,” he said.

Some orders from LaserMonks are processed at the monastery, but most are shipped directly from manufacturers to the consumers under deals the monks worked out with them, Father McCoy said.

Over the years, the monastery has supported itself through investing, real estate, forestry and rental of farmland. Its annual expenses total about $150,000, and LaserMonks is an effort to be self-sustaining, Father McCoy said.

He says the company, which averages 100 to 200 customers a day, benefits from people’s curiosity about the monks themselves.

“Monks are cool. Monks are in. People like monks,” he said. “Tie that with charity and with an absolutely necessary product that you can get at a better price guaranteed. Once people hear about us, it is a no-brainer.”

Father McCoy hopes one day to make enough money to build a church on the grounds of the 17,000-square-foot, 30-room stone monastery.

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