To make his commercial salad dressing, Brother Roger just stirs in the traditional ingredients: oil, vinegar, sugar, tomatoes, herbs and the like. But as a would-be founder of a new monastic community—the Cistercian Order of the Oblates of the Strict Observance of St. Bernard de Clairvaux—the 53-year-old French-Canadian monk could hardly be more unorthodox. His recipe: Start with one 12th-century Spanish abbey. Relocate it (with the inadvertent help of the late William Randolph Hearst) to the condominium country of North Miami Beach, Fla. Build a 40-room retreat house and invite Episcopalians as well as his fellow Roman Catholics to enter. Float the whole million-dollar project by marketing Roger’s own Old Spanish Monastery Sweet-and-Sour Salad Dressing.
It all began—the dressing, not his dream—with a century-old formula passed down from Belfontaine Abbey in France. Roger personally mixes it in a huge copper pot several afternoons a week. Currently sold ($1 per eight-ounce bottle) only at the monastery gift shop and a few local churches, Old Spanish Monastery is not likely to give Wish-Bone or Seven Seas cause for alarm—yet. Brother Roger is now trying to interest a major manufacturer in bottling and marketing his dressing. But what is a monk doing in salad oil? “We are not a mendicant order,” he explains. “We have to earn what we get.” The “we” includes the one other monk at St. Bernard’s so far, Brother Ambrose, 30, a former insurance salesman who, as his contribution, operates a Miami Herald paper route. Two other adherents left the order, presumably because the regimen was too spartan.
“Our founding fathers saw the life of a monk as very austere,” explains Brother Roger in his heavy Québecois accent. “Those ways are mostly gone now—kaput!—like the nuns’ habits.” Although not ordained as a priest, Roger Perreault does have a theology degree from Laval University. He joined Québec’s Mistassini Monastery in 1940 and for the past dozen years has worked as a laborer on a dam and supermarket clerk while promoting his bold idea of collaboration with the Episcopalians. “My idea caused shock at first,” he reports, but he finally persuaded his superiors to let him take a leave. On a bus trip to Miami he spotted the monastery of St. Bernard. “I knew,” he says, “this was the place God had in mind for me.”
St. Bernard’s, started in 1141 at Sacramenia, Spain, was disassembled and the cloister and two halls were brought to the U.S. in 1925 by Hearst to grace his spectacular San Simeon estate in California. Instead, agriculture inspectors, fearing hoof-and-mouth disease, impounded the 11,000 stones at a Brooklyn warehouse, where they remained until entrepreneurs purchased them in 1952 and rebuilt the monastery in Florida as a tourist attraction. In 1964 it was acquired by the Episcopal diocese.
Should Brother Roger’s Old Spanish Monastery salad dressing scheme work out (the Trappists’ income from “Monk’s Bread” and jellies encourage him), the hum of success will be quiet. The Cistercians of the new colony will stick to a vegetarian diet and will use age-old sign language for casual communication. No one will be allowed to speak without permission. “In monasteries now there is some silence,” grumps Brother Roger, “but it is not perpetual. How can you think about God with so much blah-blah-blahing?”