Throughout history, monks have been linked to ink, penning beautiful calligraphy in books and illuminating manuscripts.
The Benedictine monks at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, located in California’s Mojave Desert 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, have updated the ink connection for today’s digital age with their new venture, MonksInk, an online ink and toner business.
Since it launched in 2011, MonksInk.com, an online store offering brand name and remanufactured ink and toner cartridges, has tripled the number of its customers, who hail from corporations, dioceses and schools nationwide. This year, it has more than tripled its sales revenue, with sales doubling in just the last six months.
Benedictine Fr. Joseph Brennan, prior of St. Andrew’s Abbey, credited the surge to recently targeted marketing efforts to Catholic dioceses and schools as well as customer interest in ordering ink and toner cartridges from a monastery instead of an impersonal big box office supply store.
“People are intrigued when they hear about it,” Fr. Brennan told The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. “They want to support the abbey and the monastery. So many people across the country have been educated by Benedictines.”
Out of MonksInk’s more than 1,000 customers, approximately 220 regularly purchase their ink and toner supplies through MonksInk, either calling the toll free customer service line or placing orders on the website, which features pictures of the monks engaging in their life of prayer and outreach.
The monastic community was founded in China in 1929 by Benedictines from the Abbey of Sint Andries Zevenkerken in Bruges, Belgium. The monks prayed, taught and worked in China until they were expelled by the communists in 1952. In 1955 the community relocated to Valyermo.
Br. Peter Zhou Bangjiu is the oldest of the abbey’s 20 monks, who range in age from 38 to 87. Br. Peter is the only surviving monk from the Benedictine community in China. He was imprisoned for his faith and then reunited with his fellow brothers 25 years later in Valyermo.
The monks pray five times a day for the needs of the world and work in various ministries that include hosting onsite retreats, providing spiritual counseling and direction, producing their signature saint and angel ceramics, managing the abbey’s bookstore, and assisting at local parishes and chaplaincies.
Guests from all walks of life and denominations have visited the abbey for more than 50 years, making directed or private retreats, sharing meals with the monks and joining the monks in the monastery chapel – a converted stable on the former turkey ranch – for chanting of the Divine Office.
“What happens here is a kind of seedbed for inner renewal, and we share the fruits of that with people who come,” explained Fr. Brennan, an archdiocesan priest for 20 years before receiving permission to join the Benedictines 19 years ago. Along with his duties at the abbey, the priest is a spiritual director at the Cardinal Timothy Manning House of Prayer for priests in Los Angeles.
“It’s really like the old days with the desert fathers and mothers and the people who come out seeking. We have a lot of people who have been in the corporate world for years and they come here to find a sense of peace and redirection,” said Fr. Brennan, adding the monks also extend their Benedictine charism of hospitality to their customers.
“The Benedictine motto is ‘Nihil amori Christi praeponere — prefer nothing to the love of Christ,’“ noted the prior. “St. Benedict insists in his rule that we monks welcome each person, each visitor, as Christ himself. Hospitality, service and personal attention are very important to us, and they are echoed in how (monks and lay Benedictine Oblates) run MonksInk.”
“I think the first thing that people tangibly experience is something very different when they call and inquire, that they’re not just a client,” said Fr. Brennan. “What we hope to do eventually in responding to orders is include a prayer card that captures something of our Benedictine community that assures them of our prayers for them and asks their prayers for our endeavor.”
“We strive for excellent customer service, and we try to find cartridges that are hard to locate,” explained Chris McDowell, customer service supervisor. MonksInk works with several suppliers who have ink and toner cartridges for most printers, fax and copy machines in a wide range of brands, including top sellers such as Hewett Packard, Canon and Epson.
Customers get an email confirming their order has been placed with MonksInk, and delivery is swift, sometimes the next day, noted McDowell. She added that customers have saved up to 60 percent by ordering remanufactured cartridges or generics. In addition, brand name items are also sold at a discount, and shipping is set at a flat rate of $5.95 with orders over $75 receiving free shipping in the 48 contiguous states.
Occasionally, Benedictine Fr. Carlos Lopez, who works in ceramics customer service down the hall in the monastery’s arts and crafts building, has pitched in to help with MonksInk phone orders.
Information about the monastery on the MonksInk website, he said, has helped reverse a long-running deficit for the ceramics, which are now turning a profit for the first time in at least 20 years. “It’s been really good riding on the coattails of MonksInk,” said the monk.
“I hope MonksInk will be a great help for the overall ministries of the abbey,” added Fr. Brennan. “Our next big project is to build monastic housing, which we desperately need. If this could help us launch that program, it would be wonderful.”