Benedictine monks established a new monastery near Covington, La., in 1889. Elevated to abbey status in 1903, Saint Joseph Abbey is a Catholic monastery that for generations has trained the majority of the priests in southern Louisiana. As a Benedictine monastery, the monks follow the teachings of Saint Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century Christian monk who lived near Rome. This ancient tradition is encapsulated in the Benedictine motto “ora et labora” (prayer and work). The monastic life at Saint Joseph Abbey is one of liturgical prayer, the singing of psalms, simple labor, education, and hospitality toward those seeking a contemplative respite from the world.
Saint Benedict instructed monastic communities to support themselves financially through the practice of common occupations. For centuries, Benedictine monks and monks of other orders have engaged in trades such as farming, brewing beer and making wine. Over the years, the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey have farmed and harvested timber on their property.
Saint Joseph Abbey is not wealthy—just the opposite, in fact—and the monks were told by lay advisors in the late 1990s that they needed a new way to support themselves. But what could the monks do in the modern world while preserving their quiet life centered at the monastery?
The answer was casket-making. On November 28, 1992, Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge died and was buried in one of the simple wooden caskets that the monks had been making for themselves for decades. Bishop Warren Boudreaux of Houma-Thibodaux was also buried in an Abbey casket when he died on October 6, 1997. These funerals led many people to inquire about buying Abbey caskets for their loved ones, and these requests kept coming through the early 2000s.
This was the perfect opportunity for the monks: Casket-making was a simple occupation that could be performed at the monastery; hand-made monastic caskets are a unique product for which there is a large market; and selling caskets enables the monks to share their view of the simplicity and unity of life and death. Like good entrepreneurs everywhere, the monks—who own everything communally—invested in themselves and converted an old cafeteria building on their property into a well-equipped woodshop.