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Monks in the marketplace: Monastery rejects suggestions for cannabis-growing enterprise

SHAWNEE — St. Gregory's Abbey has become known for the honey produced from its bee hives and fresh eggs from a flock of free-range hens housed on the monastery's grounds.

Soon, visitors will be able to purchase other items at the abbey — everything from soap, candles and lotion, to granola, breakfast cookies and a spicy condiment fittingly called "Monk Sauce."

Those things will be for sale at the new "Monk's Marketplace," which will open on Wednesday at 1900 W MacArthur.

The abbey monks even were encouraged to consider adding cannabis products to their enterprise. They declined.

When the state's only Catholic university closed in 2017, people wondered what would become of the Benedictine religious order that started the school and lived in an adjacent monastery.

Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen said the short answer to that question was that monastic life at St. Gregory's would continue.

He said a longer answer revolved around some new initiatives being developed at the abbey, one of them being the new shop. He said Monk's Marketplace is part of the abbey's long-term vision to cultivate ventures that raise awareness about the monastery and potentially become streams of income for the monks whose ministry is based there.

Stasyszen said St. Gregory's is following the tradition of monasteries around the world that make and sell all sorts of foods and goods. The new shop will feature more than a few items made by other religious orders in addition to the abbey's honey, eggs, jam and jellies.

"It gives us an opportunity to bring people to the abbey. It gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about monasteries around the country and it brings in revenue for our own monastery," Stasyszen said.

Popular destinations

The abbot said he has lived in Europe and it isn't uncommon for monastery shops to be among the more popular destinations for religious pilgrims and tourists.

"Monasteries offer a variety of products from honey and soup, to lozenges, teas, liquors and beers," he said. "And before the modern pharmaceutical industry, monasteries were known for the healing arts. They were often places where people went for helpful healing products for the body, as well as the soul."

Brother Damian Whalen came up with the idea for the abbey shop. He serves as the abbey's longtime organist and choir master and was a professor in the St. Gregory's University business department.

He is currently immersed in his latest role as manager of Monk's Marketplace, learning how to shrink wrap, train volunteers and other retail-oriented tasks.

"I just turned 65 in September and here I am starting a career as a shopkeeper," he said.

Whalen said one of the first things the monks decided was to increase the abbey's honey output because of the growing demand for the organic sweet substance. Along those lines, he said the monastery recently received a shipment of additional hives that the Rev. Simeon Spitz, a priest and abbey monk, will tend to in coming months. Stasyszen said the abbey is adding 100 new hives to bring its hive total to 300.

Whalen said Spitz also will continue to make his blackberry jam that has become a favorite among monastery visitors. In the past, the honey and jam were sold in the gift shop at the nearby Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, but the food items now will be sold at the marketplace.

"Hopefully we can entice them with honey," Spitz said of potential shop customers.

Whalen said another monk is adding his own wares to the shop. Brother Andrew Raple, a multi-talented monk, is contributing some of the wooden puzzles he has been making for years.

Whalen said St. Gregory's Abbey coffee cups and postcards featuring photos of the monastery's exterior and interior also will be for sale, along with mass produced items that people in the Catholic faith community like to purchase, including rosary beads and other similar items.

Goods from other places include Monk Sauce, hot sauce in three different varieties from monks at Subiaco Abbey, a Benedictine abbey in Subiaco, Arkansas; a line of hand lotion, soap and lip balm from Benedictine sisters in Clyde, Missouri; and breakfast cookies and granola from the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in Berryhill, Arkansas, a religious order founded by Christian recording artist and Oklahoma native John Michael Talbot.

Other items include room spray, hand soap and gardener's salve made by cloistered Dominican nuns; candles made from coconut wax by a woman in Kansas City, Kansas; and a line of body wash made by Franciscan sisters in Sylvania, Ohio.

People have been wondering if the shop products will be available online, Whalen said, but this isn't feasible for the abbey just yet.

Not on shop shelves

Hobby Lobby purchased the St. Gregory's University property and leased it to nearby Oklahoma Baptist University before donating the property to the Southern Baptist college in December 2019.

St. Gregory's Abbey had placed a substantial portion of monastery land up for collateral for a loan that the university eventually defaulted on. However, the abbey was able to retain 480 acres of its property.

Stasyszen said the monks came up with different ways to bring in income after the university closed.

Because the monastery property included the university's former cafeteria, the monks turned the space into a library featuring some of St. Gregory's University philosophy and theology books that a donor purchased for the abbey. The space also was divided into two gathering sites where the monks have begun offering monthly religious talks called "Day of Reflection."

Stasyszen said the monastery received several suggestions for potential revenue streams.

They politely turned down one of those ideas: to cultivate cannabis crops to capitalize on Oklahoma's growing medical marijuana market.

The abbot said at least three people approached him with that idea thinking that joining the cannabis industry would be a good way for the monks to support themselves. An out-of-state associate even threw out the idea that the monks could place their bee hives around the cannabis crops, he said.

Stasyszen said among reasons for rejecting the idea is that while medical marijuana is legal in Oklahoma it is not legally recognized by the federal government. He said the monastery would not jeopardize its federal tax-exempt status pursuing such an enterprise.

"I respectfully declined. There's more to be considered for us than just the economics and we have more priorities that we want to pursue," he said.

The abbot believes the shop will become a popular place with the many products that will be available for sale. And he's hoping it will attract more visitors to see what the monastery is all about.

"This is just one more reason the abbey remains a destination. Join us for prayer, visit the Mabee-Gerrer Museum and go to the Monk's Marketplace," he said. "We are your local monastery."

Monk's Marketplace

Where: St. Gregory's Abbey, 1900 W MacArthur in Shawnee.

Hours: Grand opening is at 1:30 p.m. with ribbon-cutting at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Shop hours will be 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Information: 878-5490; https://monksok.org; St. Gregory's Abbey on Facebook.

Related Photos
<strong>Brother Damian Whalen holds up a candle that will be among the items sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Brother Damian Whalen holds up a candle that will be among the items sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-21e25b290f4659dbc05edfe031a8fc5d.jpg" alt="Photo - Brother Damian Whalen holds up a candle that will be among the items sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Brother Damian Whalen holds up a candle that will be among the items sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Brother Damian Whalen holds up a candle that will be among the items sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6d550e3d79f441b072353f293b63e646.jpg" alt="Photo - Wooden puzzles made by Brother Andrew Raple, a monk at St. Gregory's Abbey, will be sold at the Monk's Marketplace on the abbey grounds in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Wooden puzzles made by Brother Andrew Raple, a monk at St. Gregory's Abbey, will be sold at the Monk's Marketplace on the abbey grounds in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Wooden puzzles made by Brother Andrew Raple, a monk at St. Gregory's Abbey, will be sold at the Monk's Marketplace on the abbey grounds in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-afa8d8db7ce20be4178e9f18e5534e71.jpg" alt="Photo - Monk Sauce, hot sauce made from Habanero peppers, in three different flavors, will be available. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Monk Sauce, hot sauce made from Habanero peppers, in three different flavors, will be available. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Monk Sauce, hot sauce made from Habanero peppers, in three different flavors, will be available. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0b3afca271a609ce928697a9f030e12e.jpg" alt="Photo - Handmade soap will be among items sold at the Monk's Marketplace shop. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Handmade soap will be among items sold at the Monk's Marketplace shop. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Handmade soap will be among items sold at the Monk's Marketplace shop. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6dd879838202b58511daf95b86cda263.jpg" alt="Photo - Brother Damian Whalen looks through bags and boxes of items that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Brother Damian Whalen looks through bags and boxes of items that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Brother Damian Whalen looks through bags and boxes of items that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-2f6926980018eb35b6bb1c228c2a3457.jpg" alt="Photo - The new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawne will open Jan. 15. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" The new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawne will open Jan. 15. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> The new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawne will open Jan. 15. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a213bad7779f429d0b9720f586749dbd.jpg" alt="Photo - Coffee cups will be one of the many items that will be sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Coffee cups will be one of the many items that will be sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Coffee cups will be one of the many items that will be sold in the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1c6af19a711d9c8b92415a5a8be30466.jpg" alt="Photo - Brother Damian Whalen shows a candle made from coconut wax that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Brother Damian Whalen shows a candle made from coconut wax that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Brother Damian Whalen shows a candle made from coconut wax that will be sold at the new Monk's Marketplace at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d908dfccab504eb4db5ac06e3c558598.jpg" alt="Photo - One of the new conference rooms at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee, Okla. on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title="One of the new conference rooms at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee, Okla. on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption>One of the new conference rooms at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee, Okla. on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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