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Lowcountry monks move on to mushrooms

MONCKS CORNER - Brother John Corrigan moved quietly through the interiors of nine retrofitted flatbed trailers last week, showing visitors the progressive growth of hundreds of dusky, multicolored White Oyster mushrooms.

The new enterprise at the pastoral Mepkin Abbey resembles something of a climate-controlled boxing gym, with dozens of huge black plastic-covered tubes hanging like punching bags from the ceilings.

Blooming from slits in the straw and cottonseed-stuffed rolls are dozens of ruffled mushrooms tinged in colors that range from brownish white to a faint blue and pink tint.

"It is satisfying," Corrigan, a bespectacled soft-spoken Roman Catholic monk, said of the mushroom operation. "It's good for the land, and it's close to the land."

The 3,400-acre monastery, a former rice plantation on the banks of the Cooper River, has traded its longtime chicken-and-egg operation for the more bucolic mushroom experiment.

Some Charleston restaurants are already featuring the exotic-looking mushrooms, which earned their name because they look like clusters of oysters.

"They are absolutely gorgeous when you first get them in," said Mike Wutz, a sous chef at High Cotton, a Charleston restaurant that values fresh, locally produced meats and produce. "The quality is definitely there, and we are all about supporting the monks and other local folks."

The texture and taste surpass an ordinary button mushroom, he said, which has meant demand is higher than the abbey can yet meet. But the operation is just nine months old.

The mushrooms also are available at Piggly Wiggly and Newton Farm grocery stores in Charleston and in some Piggly Wiggly stores in Columbia.

FROM EGGS TO MUSHROOMS

Mepkin was famous for its eggs, distributing about 9 million annually through Piggly Wiggly and other outlets. The operation was the monastery's chief source of income, generating about $140,000 annually.

But complaints by the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that the monks were mistreating the chickens by cramming the birds into small cages and de-beaking them led to a public relations nightmare.

The monks maintained they employed humane practices and followed industry standards. But the public outcry disturbed the life of the brothers, who try to live in an atmosphere of quiet prayer, work and reflection.

They announced in December 2007 they would cease the egg operation and search for a new way to generate income.

With the mushroom operation, a sense of calm has returned to the monastery.

"It's past," Corrigan said of the PETA controversy. "It's history, and it's gone. It was nice to get it behind us."

The new operation also has meant higher visibility for Corrigan, one of about 25 Roman Catholic monks now living a contemplative life at Mepkin.

The 67-year-old Corrigan has spent five decades at the abbey, arriving as a 16-year-old Irish Catholic postulant from New York City. Then, the monastery, part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, was truly isolated from the outside world. The 50 brothers he joined were completely self-sustaining, doing all their own work, from carpentry and construction to farming, he said.

Joining the monastery "is a cultural shock," he said. "It happened in the '50s, and it happens today" to others.

QUALITY CONTROL AND PEACEFUL REFLECTION

Today, Mepkin Abbey welcomes day visitors, who can tour the terraced gardens and attend daily prayers. Some stay several days on spiritual retreat.

Many use the Claire Boothe Luce Library, named for the flamboyant writer who along with her husband, publishing giant Henry R. Luce, gave part of their Lowcountry estate to the Cistercian-Trappist order in 1949 to create Mepkin Abbey.

Those who are considering monastic life can join the monastic retreat program for 30 days, participating in the full spiritual life and work of the monastery.

For 30 years, Corrigan spent his working hours in the egg-processing arena.

Now, as the abbey's cellar, or business manager, he must oversee the burgeoning mushroom operation, assigning monks to daily tasks as well as meeting with wholesalers who market the mushrooms and restaurateurs interested in buying directly.

"I have to organize the work and get the people in the right places at the right time," he said.

And there is the abbey's popular Earth Healer compost to bag and get to market. Two huge piles are left over from the chicken operation, enough to satisfy the demands of gardeners through one more growing season, he speculated.

In its place, the abbey plans to market mushroom compost with the cottonseed and straw that is left once the growing cycle of each tubular bag is complete.

The mushrooms bloom, or fruit, in 14 days from the time the mushroom spawn is inserted into the bags, blooming three times in a three-month period before the tubes are discarded.

Corrigan and the other monks begin their day in darkness, when they say Vigils, the morning prayers, at 3:20 a.m. Their day is punctuated by prayer and two work periods, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1:45 to 3:30 p.m., by meals taken in silence and more prayers before ending the day after prayers at 8 p.m., when the overnight Great Silence begins.

In this fast-paced and competitive world, it has become harder for Roman Catholic men of faith to commit to a lifetime of contemplation and prayerful silence. But Corrigan has found the life a satisfying one.

He said he finds solitude and time for reflection as he moves through the day, even as he manages the delicate climate control and misting that takes place in each trailer of mushrooms.

"We did not realize it would take so much quality control," he said. But he said, "it falls into a pattern very quickly."

He said he often thinks of the great monasteries of the Middle Ages in which hundreds of monks lived and worked. Managing the spiritual life and work of hundreds compared to the small number of monks he routinely supervises each day puts things in perspective, even as he bears the burden of this new agricultural undertaking.

"You have to have something to hand on," he said.

Once the mushroom business becomes self-sustaining, the abbey might look at growing other sought-after mushrooms, including shiitakes and portobellos.

"It's part of the job I'm asked to do for now," he said. "It's my time to carry certain loads."

He smiled. "Graces can come from that. Gifts and graces can come from that."

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