by Connie Cherba
The Abbey of Our Lady of the Mississippi perches on a wooded bluff overlooking the Mississippi River south of Dubuque. The main building of the Abbey was once the home of the Stampfers, a family many associate with their downtown Dubuque department store. Today, 17 Roman Catholic nuns call the Abbey their home. The Sisters are Cistercian or Trappistine nuns who, according to their website, “follow Jesus Christ through a life of prayer, silence, simplicity, and ordinary work.”
The work performed by this talented community of women is the sweetest work imaginable – the Sisters are expert candy makers and support themselves through the sale of Trappistine Creamy Caramels and other sweet delicacies produced in their candy factory and sold by mail and in gift shops throughout the Midwest and the United States.
The Monastery was founded in 1964, and less than a year later the Sisters were busy cooking and selling caramels. “The caramels are cooked from a recipe that came to us from our Sisters in Wrentham, Massachusetts, who founded us,” said Sister Kathleen O’Neill, general manager of the candy making operation. “They got it from a Greek confectioner in Providence, Rhode Island, who gave it to them because he heard they needed something to support themselves.”
The successful candy making enterprise soon branched out when the nuns began coating vanilla caramels with milk or dark chocolate. Today, the Sisters annually produce some 70 tons of chocolate-coated caramels along with plain vanilla and chocolate caramels. Not satisfied with limiting themselves to caramels, the order introduced Irish (green) mints in 1980 and Swiss (chocolate) mints in 1997.
With the advent of internet sales, orders soared, and the candy making operation soon outgrew its building. In response to their growing customer base, the Sisters built a new, state-of the art candy factory and moved into the facility in August 2002. They also added Hazelnut Meltaways (a blend of chocolate and hazelnuts), truffles, and caramel ice cream toppings to their candy lineup.
The Sisters gather seven times a day to praise God, but when they’re not praying and singing, nearly all the nuns are busy working in the candy house. “They work from 8:15 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., five days a week, from September through December,” said Sheryl Mosby, office manager. The workload lessens in the off season.
The Sisters’ major candy season begins September 1, and nearly 90% of their annual sales occur in the fall months leading up to Christmas. Much of the rest of their work – except cooking and laundry – has to be set aside as it’s all-hands-on-deck to assure there will be enough candy for the expected holiday rush. To fill all the orders, part-time employees are hired and retired sisters from local congregations are called upon to help out.
Monastery candy customers generally fall into three main categories – retailers like Hartig and Dubuque’s hospital gift shops, direct customers who place orders by phone or through the mail and internet, and corporate customers who order candy as Christmas gifts for their clients.
A divine aroma permeates the main room of the candy factory. The brightly lit room hums with quiet energy as the Sisters perform their assigned tasks. Talking is kept to a minimum, but smiles abound as the crew works together like a well-oiled machine, moving candy through the many stages of the production process.
Sister Kathleen explained the various candy making techniques. “Our mints and meltaways are melted in a big melter and then poured the next day into plastic forms,” she said. “Our caramels – which we sell the most of by far – are cooked in copper kettles to 242 or 243 degrees. The main ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, heavy cream with 40% butterfat, butter, and evaporated milk. Some of the cream and milk is added later through a dropper which causes an emulsion to happen.”
The cooked caramel mixture is then poured onto steel cooling tables. When it’s partially cooled, bars are inserted to separate the candy into slabs. “The next day, we take the slabs off the table and send them through a machine to cut the candy into strips. Next they go through the caramel wrapper, the most complex machine we have,” said Sister Kathleen. “Ours does 180 caramels a minute or three every second. We have a little bit of a niche in the market. There just aren’t that many good hand-crafted caramels being wrapped out there.”
While some of the caramels are hand-packed into boxes or gold-stripped cellophane bags, some of the unwrapped caramels are taken to another work station to be coated or “enrobed” in either milk or dark, semi-sweet chocolate. Each coated caramel is topped with a “squiggle” or chocolate, diagonal stripe carefully dripped from the gloved fingertip of a talented worker. “We’ve been told by confectioners that a diagonal line indicates caramel,” said Sister Kathleen.
What’s Sister Kathleen’s favorite candy? “I like the hazelnut meltaways,” she said. “I love hazelnuts, and the meltaways have a little salt in them – along with the chocolate and the hazelnuts, I think they taste fantastic.” She added, “My second favorite is probably our Swiss Mints.”
Take it from the Sisters at the Abbey – if you’re searching for the perfect Christmas gift, look no further. Trappistine Monastery candy is sure to be well received by even the most hard to please person on your list. Stop by one of the candy retailers, call the Monastery at (563) 556-6330, or visit the Sisters’ website at MonasteryCandy.com to place your online order. As Sister Kathleen would say, “God bless you” and Merry Christmas!