SHAWNEE — Shortly after sunrise prayer, the Rev. Simeon Spitz trades his monastic habit for a T-shirt, cowboy hat and blue jeans before he slips out the doors of St. Gregory’s Abbey.
Bushes filled with berries — a sea of green speckled with ruby, violet and ebony dots — beckon the Benedictine monk this sunny morn.
By day, Spitz plucks succulent blackberries from the bushes sprawled on abbey grounds.
By night, he transforms the fruit into sweet jam.
Laughing, the monk and recently ordained priest said he didn’t earn his masters in theology degree to reap this type of harvest.
And yet, the berries that he picks so faithfully have yielded certain rewards.
Spitz’s Honey Berry Jam, so-named because it includes honey — also harvested at the abbey — is sold at the abbey and the adjacent Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art.
The jam is a definite crowd pleaser; it has sold out in about two weeks each of the four years it has been offered.
Spitz, 30, said he initially made the jam for St. Gregory’s monastic community, but visitors sampled the fruity treat and wanted some for themselves.
They offered to give a donation in exchange for the jam and thus the monk’s annual jam sessions began.
He said he made and sold about 70 jars of jam the first year. The berry enterprise grew so much that 400 jars of jam were sold last year.
Spitz hoped to make 500 jars of jam this season.
“They (blackberries) are a project that I could do to help at the monastery to make a little revenue while I was going to school,” he said. “Plus, they are kind of fun.”
For the last few weeks, Spitz has visited the blackberry bushes he cultivates, armed with the tools of the trade — heavy gloves, a straw hat that he calls his “Atwood special” and plenty of patience.
“Patience — that’s the major ingredient because it takes patience not to pick them before they are ripe,” he said, eying the fruit.
Berries in various shades of pink, red and purple are bypassed by Spitz even though they sparkle temptingly in the sun.
Instead, the monk chooses the darkest berries he can find.
“Red berries would be tart but in a couple of days, they will be black and sweet,” he said.
And, he promised, the purple berries would turn darker still — and infinitely sweeter — by nightfall.
“Today’s purple berries are tonight’s black berries,” Spitz said as a mound of blackberries grew higher and higher in his bucket.
Though it is manual labor in the hot June sun, he said the time spent picking berries is fruitful for a monk. He’s just a few hundred yards from St. Gregory’s University’s historic Benedictine Tower, but picking the berries is a relatively quiet endeavor, offering the perfect atmosphere to commune with God in the midst of nature’s bounty.
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St. Gregory’s Abbey blackberry jam is sold for $10 a jar at the abbey and Mabee-Gerrer Museum on the Gregory’s University campus at 1900 N MacArthur in Shawnee.
For more information, call the museum at 878-5300.
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