Seeking prayer and not profits, they've updated their chocolate business.
WRENTHAM, Mass. (AP) -- The 50 Cistercian Sisters of Mount Saint Mary Abbey rise each morning at 3, pray until nearly 8 and then begin their work day making chocolate, the labor they have chosen to support themselves and their life of what they call "beautiful simplicity."
But not so long ago, beautiful simplicity seemed to be falling out of reach. Paperwork was distracting the nuns from prayer as the burdens of running the chocolate business crowded out their mission of quiet contemplation.
"To maintain that atmosphere of tranquility, the atmosphere of peace that is essential to our way of life -- which is the reason for being here -- we simply needed help," said Sister Pamela, who has lived and worked here for 21 years.
And so, the members of this order founded in the 11th century decided what they needed was a 21st century supply chain. Trappistine Quality Candy, as the business is known, might not resemble the factory floor at Intel, but it certainly shed its medieval roots.
Desktop computers, a server and an internal network have replaced two old, barely functioning PCs that once sat in a dank basement and left the nuns worried that large customers would leave because of poor service.
Sister Pamela is Trappistine's unofficial chief technology officer. After morning prayers and Mass, she stops by a recently renovated office and fetches from the Internet a file with the latest mail orders compiled by a Wisconsin outsourcing company. Those, along with others from Trappistine's Web site, are plugged into software that spits out instant packing slips that are sent to the production line, and an electronic manifesto for the United Parcel Service truck that will pull up behind the kitchen later in the day.
The sisters rarely have phone access, but e-mail keeps them in touch with customers as far away as central China.
The Web site accounts for 20 percent of the orders. Like most e-businesses, the sisters hope that number will grow.
"When I think back five years ago, all this was unimaginable," said Sister Elizabeth, who supervises some of the chocolate production.
Sales haven't increased much lately, but in this rare instance, that doesn't mean the technology failed. "We do the office work with fewer hours, fewer people and more peace," Sister Pamela said.
That leaves more time and energy for the spiritual tasks: prayer and making chocolate.
"When you come to the monastery it's for a very specific purpose," Sister Elizabeth said. "Everything in life aside from the technology is geared so that purpose can be fulfilled -- a union with God. That's why we get up at 3 o'clock. That's why we do the simple work we do."
Founded in 1949, Mount Saint Mary was the first Cistercian house in the United States. The nuns first supported themselves by baking bread, but the early-morning baking schedule interfered with their morning routine, so in 1956 they turned to chocolate. Everyone helps, especially at Christmas; the infirm who can no longer bake, sit and fold boxes.
Life here is rigid: The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 by an abbot who felt his previous monastery had become too lax in observing the Rule of Saint Benedict, a guide to the monastic life that dates to the sixth century. There is no television or radio, and the only secular newspaper subscription is the Christian Science Monitor.
But the Cistercians aren't against progress; in fact, their medieval monasteries were known for cutting-edge architecture and water systems. So they used a 1998 grant to hire Ziad H. Moukheiber, who runs a small consulting firm called Silversword Solutions of Newton with his wife, Lamia. They earned the contract by showing they understood this wasn't a typical business.
For Moukheiber, working for the sisters meant throwing many of his usual recommendations out the window.
"Sometimes, the immediate instinct is, 'Why don't you hire three temp workers, or work until 8 p.m.?"' he said. "They can't do that."
But what they want is no different from other clients: efficiency.
Now, Moukheiber said Silversword's technicians jostle to be assigned to the abbey's once-weekly network maintenance calls, where they enjoy the quiet and gain perspective that carries into their other work.
"When clients swear at us now, we don't swear back," he laughed.