The many gifts of consecrated life

Selling their own olive oil, honey, cheeses, jams, soaps, dolls, even puppies, helps these Catholic sisters and nuns sustain their life of prayer and service.

By Christina Gray

Religious orders and communities, particularly those blessed with acres of productive land, have long relied on small cottage industries to support their charisms. A notable few in California have cultivated a solid income stream with handmade gift items that are especially popular for Christmas giving.

“We brought in about $200,000 last year,” said Dominican Sister Jane Rudolph, coordinator of the community’s annual Christmas boutique held on the grounds of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose motherhouse.

The Dominican Sisters’ own organic, extra-virgin olive oil, organic “Holy Honey,” honey lavender soaps, Sister Donna Marie’s fruitcakes and Sister Lynn Marie’s bourbon balls are the community’s signature offerings.

Located in the rolling hills of Fremont, the Dominican motherhouse is home to Sisters actively engaged in the apostolate as well as those requiring assisted living or skilled nursing care near the end of their lives of consecrated service to God. Proceeds from the boutique support elderly or infirm Sisters. A portion is available for discretionary humanitarian aid.

“We donate 10% of our earnings from the boutique to help communities rebuild after natural disasters and pandemics,” she said.

The one-day event will be held this year on Saturday, Nov. 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will include the Sisters’ signature items, plus other items handmade by the Sisters or local artisans, including baby onesies and bibs, baby blankets, summer hats, pet blankets, aprons, holiday decor and more.

Those unable to make it to the one-day boutique can make online purchases of the signature items from Oct. 9 to 29.

Mission-era olive trees and “Holy Honey”

When the Dominican Sisters arrived at Mission San Jose in 1891, the land included 334 olive trees. Historic photos show Sisters in full habit harvesting olives from trees planted by the Ohlone people. In 1894, the Sisters began processing the olives for their rich oil. The oil was sold to Catholic parishes throughout the Bay Area for a time, and across the United States, then ceased for a spell. Today the Sisters continue to cultivate 200 olive trees, the largest remaining grove of Mission-era olive trees in California.

Sister Rudolph said the Sisters have only seen a portion of the proceeds from the boutique after expenses and are turning to community volunteers and small business partnership to reduce costs.

For many years, the Sisters picked their own olives and even pressed the oil themselves (the old press is now on display with other historical artifacts in the motherhouse reception area).

Today, while the Sisters still do their own olive harvesting with the help of local pickers, a partnership with a Catholic farming family in Modesto, the Sciabica family, has lightened their load and expanded their production. Since 2000, the Sciabicas, who produce their own olive oil, vinegars and food products, do the pressing, storing, bottling, labeling and delivery of the Dominican Sisters’ olive oil.

Every year, the Sisters share the blessings produced by the Mission-era olive trees with a tradition for many local families and other supporters. The public is invited into the olive groves to help harvest the ripe fruit for the Sisters. This year’s family harvest day will be Dec. 9 from 9 noon.

Honey production began with Sister Evangelista Grisez, who began keeping bees in the early 1930s. Sister Balbina Schallwig followed her, tending 30 motherhouse hives which produced 80 gallons of “Holy Honey” per year. Today Sister Barbara Hagel tends new hives that pollinate motherhouse plants and trees and produce delicious raw honey.

Norbertine cheeses, dolls and … puppies

“Our main mission is prayer, prayer, prayer,” said Sister Mary Norbert, canoness of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph. The community of 45 cloistered nuns live just outside the tiny mountain town of Tehachapi, California, and are the first community of Norbertine canonesses in the United States.

“All Norbertine communities strive to be self-sufficient,” said Sister Mary Norbert, who joined the order in 2005. “We had to determine what kind of things we could do to support ourselves, keeping in mind that we are cloistered.”

The monastery sits on 470 acres and has seen vocations multiply in recent years. The Tehachapi community was established in 1997 by the Norbertine pirests from St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County (Calif.).

“It’s a good problem to have,” she said.

The Norbertine Sisters have earned a reputation for making fine cheeses after getting licensed for cheesemaking 10 years ago.

“One of the local wineries even sells our cheese,” said Sister Mary Norbert.

“Because our life is six to seven hours of prayer a day, we had to find the right ‘cottage industries,’” she said. “We have about four hours a day for work, so our time is limited.”

Sister Mary Norbert spoke with particular pride about a book the order produced on the life of St. Norbert, a German bishop and founder of the Premonstratensian order of canons regular. The book was published with great help from San Francisco’s Ignatius Press, she said. It is available online, along with Catholic statuary, worship music, handmade rosaries, leather Bible covers, prayer cards and a unique “prayer pillowcase.”

Without a doubt, one of the most unusual, popular and lucrative “products” to be offered by the Norbertine Sisters are purebred puppies. Each year a limited number of champion-sired American Kennel Club (AKC) Labrador Retrievers, Anatolian Shepherds and McNab Shepherd puppies are lovingly raised by the nuns for temperament, trainability and health. Puppies can go for $2,500 and “sell themselves,” according to Sister Mary Norbert.

Then there is the popular 18-inch Norbertine Canoness doll with a habit hand-stitched by the nuns.

“You just have to smile when you see her,” she said. 

Shop with (and for) the sisters

Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, Fremont, Calif.
Annual Christmas Boutique
Sat., Nov. 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Shop early online, Oct. 9-29

Norbertine Canonnesses, Tehachapi, Calif.
Shop online at

Christina Gray is the lead writer, Catholic San Francisco.