The Abbey of the Genesee is a Roman Catholic monastery overlooking the green, rolling countryside 35 miles south of Rochester, New York. The abbey traces its roots to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where Thomas Merton made his home for many years). It was founded in 1951 and is home to about 30 monks, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitutions of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.), more commonly known as Trappists.
The abbey welcomes guests either for retreats or for briefer visits. Guests enter a contemporary-style building and go up a short incline to the main church, a circular, intimate worship space with subdued lighting. In keeping with Trappist tradition, seven services are held daily, including one at 2:25 a.m. The services are open to everyone, and both men and women are also welcome to schedule an individual or group retreat at the abbey. Accommodations are offered in three houses: Bethlehem, Bethany and Nazareth.
The monastic enclosure includes about 2400 acres of forests and rolling hills in the Genesee River Valley. The Genesee Valley Greenway runs through the property and offers a beautiful place to walk along the river, through woods and beside farm fields.
When I visited the abbey while on a family trip to upstate New York, my son was most taken by the loaves of bread prominently displayed in its small giftstore. “Monks selling bread?” my son asked. “Why do they do that?”
One answer, of course, is that monks, like everybody else, need to make a living. Religious houses often operate businesses, from cheese making and dog training to raising chickens. In my home state of Iowa, Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey sells delicious caramel candies while New Melleray Abbey makes finely crafted wooden caskets.
These enterprises do much more than bring in income, however: they are also a way to craft souls. Through long experience, monastics have learned the importance of balance in a spiritual journey. No one can pray every waking hour, and no one should work every waking hour either. The mind and body need the alternating rhythm of contemplation and labor, the yin and yang of rest and effort.
The bread-baking operation at the Abbey of the Genesee began soon after the community was established in 1951. One of the founders, Brother Sylvester, baked a hearty, old-fashioned loaf for the monks and visitors. The bread proved so popular that the abbey established a small bakery in the new abbey so they could offer the bread to others. By 1956 the operation had grown to the point that a larger, commercial-type bakery was needed. Today the abbey makes eleven varieties of Monks’ Bread as well as a variety of cakes and cookies.
We bought a loaf of bread and some cookies for our journey (both were delicious). As we ate them over the next few days, I think we absorbed a little bit of the peacefulness of the abbey. While man cannot live by bread alone, I venture to say that the Monks’ Bread at the Abbey of the Genesee comes very close to providing everything one needs.