Our Daily Bread

Swift, Tammy. "Our Daily Bread." Bismarck Tribune, 10 October 1993, sec. 1E & 3E.

Bread has always carried great symbolism. We break bread together. We "give us this day our daily bread."

It not only represents nourishment, but the staff of life.

And so when a Benedictine sister passed the art of breadmaking down to a younger sister at Richardton's Sacred Heart Monastery, it meant many things. It meant Sister Jeanette Werner, who entered the monastery 50 years ago, would no longer have to rise at 6:30 a.m. every day to mix, punch and shape the 30-some loaves. It also meant her student, Sister Karyn Haider, had kept alive a skill that the older sisters feared would die.

"Now I have hopes again," says Sister Jeanette.

Today, when the sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery gather to break bread together, they eat the fruits forged by tradition and passed on to the young.

The warm, yeasty fragrance of baking curls from the Sacred Heart Monastery's kitchen. It's bound to turn out: Every batch is made under a plaque dedicated to St. Martha, who prepared meals for Jesus Christ in Bethany.

When done, the crust is sturdy and golden brown. Cut into thick slices, the tender white insides can be slathered with butter or clear, sweet clover honey made by Brother Gordon Barnard from the neighboring Assumption Abbey.

Their secret? "Good flour," Sister Jeanette says. "There's a big difference in flour. I like Dakota Maid best."

It also takes elbow grease, and experience.

Both Sister Jeanette and Sister Imelda Aberle have plenty of that. Both grew up in the Catholic-dominated Linton/Napoleon/Wishek area.

Sister Jeanette has baked bread since age 13. She was from a family of 10, and her mother was sick a lot. Taking on adult chores, well, "that was just understood for girls." Sister Jeanette says, shrugging. "Very few went to high school."

Later, Sister Jeanette baked buns, rolls and kuchen as a school cook. She still occasionally makes sweet treats like the pink-iced "old fashioned ammonia cookies" passed down from the main cook's mother.

Hands still stained red from pickling beets, Sister Imelda joins Sister Jeanette at the table. On any given day, the high-energy 82-year-old can be found digging in the garden, canning, or doing work that would exhaust people half her age.

Both sisters remember when bread baking was a lot more work. When they worked at mission schools, they had to chop up coal for the stove, then guess when the temperature was right for baking. "Sixty-three years in the convent," sister Imelda quips, "baking bread and shoveling coal."

"When I grew up, if we had coal we were lucky," Sister Jeanette adds. "We had to use cow chips." Unfamiliar with coal's strength, she overloaded it once while baking bread at her aunt's place. "The stove got redder and redder," she recalls, laughing. "And the bread got blacker and blacker."

Today, the monastery has a giant floor mixer and a special electric stove for bread. But it's still a demanding job. They bake at least once a week - on Wednesdays. Sundays, they eat fresh caramel rolls. Around Easter, there is soft, sweet Easter buska. Christmas means fruit cake. Another treat is "pull-aparts," bits of dough coated in cinnamon and sugar and baked in a Bundt pan.

Sister Leona Baumstarck, the main cook, loves to decorate the Easter cakes, plus bakes pies and doughnuts. But she's in her 70s and needs double knee replacements. Likewise, Sister Jeanette enjoys baking, but has been hoping lately someone else would take over her duties.

So the news that Sister Karyn wanted to bake bread delighted her. "I told her what to do, then left her alone," Sister Jeanette says. "Personally, I would like to learn something new without someone looking over my shoulder."

Sister Karyn's first batch turned out beautifully. So did the next. "You just bless it and say please," Sister Karyn says of each batch.

"She's a good cook," says Sister Jeanette. "She's really good in art. She's good in so many things."

On this particular day, Sister Karyn was baking so the sisters could have fresh toast the next morning. "We're all spoiled," says Sister Rita Kay Rauschendorfer. "We don't like eating store-bought bread."

And she's already experimenting. One Thursday, Sister Karyn whipped up cottage cheese dill bread. She's also set her sights on cinnamon, sourdough and raisin varieties.

"I love to cook," she says. "I really enjoy being in the kitchen, and I always wanted to bake bread. It's like I'm watching a miracle take place when it starts to raise."

While growing up in Montana, Karyn cooked at her parents' fast-food restaurant, but never tackled bread.

Later, while working as an operations officer for First Bank in Billings, Montana she stopped cooking. She was too busy with her career.

During the bank's consolidation, Karyn watched her own staff members lose their jobs. She couldn't stand it. She loved the work, but "my value system wasn't conducive to the bank any longer."

And, "on the other side, when God calls, you listen," Sister Karyn says, smiling.

Karyn took a transitional job as a religious education director for a Billings parish. There, she heard about the Sacred Heart Monastery through a former community member. She visited, and instantly knew it was the right place. She joined over three years ago.

Last year, Sister Karyn studied art and business at Dickinson State University. But then Sister Leona fell ill, and she was recruited to stay home and help out in the kitchen. It was hard at first for
Sister Karyn, who had to reacquaint herself with the vow of obedience.

"Ultimately, I realized that it will be a wonderful year," says Sister Karyn, as she weighs the elastic lumps of dough, shapes them into squares and drops them into greased tins. "There's a lot of wisdom here to be gleaned. But a lot of the sisters are getting older, and they just aren't going to be around someday."

One of her mentors is Sister Imelda, the unofficial house mother who calls the younger sisters "kinde" - German for children. "I depend on her a lot," Sister Karyn says. "I don't know what I'd do without her."

When the bread is done, it's sliced and set out on platters for the evening meal. Later, the sisters bow their heads and give thanks for it:

"With grateful and prayerful hearts,
We lift up this bread to you,
May your glory surround it
And this meal. Amen."

If you need to feed a small army, here's the Sacred Heart Monastery's recipe for a really big batch of bread. If you just have to feed 2.5 kids and Spot, hone those math skills and downsize it.

Sacred Heart Monastery's White Bread
36-40 cups of flour
6 tablespoons yeast
2 cups sugar
2 cups oil
4 tablespoons salt
Water (as needed, about 10 cups)

Knead together for 10 minutes. Add oil so inside of bowl and exterior of dough are covered. Let raise for a half hour and punch down. Raise for another half an hour and work into loaves. Let raise for a final 45 minutes, then bake at 300 degrees until golden brown (in the monastery's oven - about half an hour).

Sister Karyn works lumps of dough into l/1/2-pound loaves.
The best part. Sisters enjoy fresh bread for lunch.
Sister Jeanette Werner, left, uses her decades of experience to teach breadmaking to Sister Karyn Haider.
Once the dough is tucked into pans, Sister Jeanette covers them so they can raise.

Reprinted with permission from the Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller