After prayers at the Chantelle Abbey in Allier, central France, a marketing meeting between the abbey's nuns and their employees discusses the latest orders for its on-site soap and cosmetics products, the delivery destination: Germany. The community of Benedictine sisters has been manufacturing cosmetics since 1954, after two sisters, a chemist and a mathematician, began the practice. Body lotions, shower gels and moisturisers are among the products made in the abbey's own laboratory, where the nuns acknowledge they must now make time for prayer and business.
"A company, must develop or it dies," said Mother Pascale, dressed in a veil and scapular while supervising production.
"We have needed to develop, to make more turnover and to modernize our clientele," she added, sounding more business executive than spiritual leader. For the Benedictines, manual labor is imperative to respect the rule of Saint Benedict, which dates back to the sixth century.
As long as it is not during the hours of prayer, the sisters can work on the products, from conception to packaging. Even Sister Marie-Suzanne, at the age of 97, and dean of the abbey, is involved in the work. But in order to meet the demand, the abbey has hired some 10 non-religious employees to help with the production.
"The purpose is not to look for money to grow rich. We are not planning to do a stock listing! But to make a living with a reasonable margin," said Mother Pascale.
Sold in monasteries, boutique shops and on the internet - the abbey even has a Facebook page - the cosmetics are mainly created from natural products and generated 1 million euros ($1.2 million) in sales last year. Much of the money is used to renovate and repair the seventh century abbey's many beautiful, yet old, ramparts and monastic buildings.
The market for abbey-made products is far from unique to France and is at least as developed in Germany and to a lesser extent in Britain. Across France, some 250 to 300 communities dedicated to prayer sell products or services. From biscuits to jam and honey, to gluten-free products and organic vegetables, men and women of the cloth have expanded into a variety of businesses.