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July 06, 2009

The "Cheese Nun"

Sent by Seven Days freelancer Sally Johnson

If science and religion are often at odds, Mother Noella Marcellino either hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care. A Benedictine nun turned doctor of microbiology, Mother Noella has married the two in a successful cheese-making enterprise and says she sees God in the remarkably complex world of the microorganisms that turn milk into cheese. She will be a guest speaker for the morning session of UVM's Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese workshop on Wednesday, extolling the virtues of raw-milk cheese.

The story of Mother Noella, who lives at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Ct., reads like a children’s story. A nun at the abbey bought a cow and the cow gave milk and the nuns had to figure out what to do with it. In answer to Mother Noella’s prayers, a young Frenchwoman turned up at the abbey to teach the nun her family’s cheese secrets, which resulted in Bethlehem cheese. Offered the chance to sign up for a course in agriculture, Mother Noella jumped at it, going on finally to take her master's and doctorate in microbiology.

Her specialty was the biodiversity of cheese fungi, which won her a Fulbright scholarship and a trip to France, culminating in a PBS documentary called, fittingly, The Cheese Nun. And if she doesn’t love that moniker, well, it will have to do. “If it gets people to … appreciate these fungi, then I do like the name Cheese Nun," she says. "Cheese has really enriched my spiritual life.”

Mother Noella is scheduled to speak on Wednesday, July 8, on the second floor of the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts,  9:15-10:15 a.m. The morning session, which runs from 9 to noon, is free and open to the public.

I was inspired by your mention of the "Cheese Nun" to add some additional, contextual comments that just might get readers thinking of other ways forward in a civilization that is so dominated by greed, disharmony and violence. Mother Noella's Benedictine vocation and her cheese-making avocation are not novel. Benedictines have followed a Rule for centuries that has at its core the blending of ora et labora: Namely, prayer and work. Saint Benedict, who wrote this little Rule for beginners, emphasized that one was not a true monk unless that individual lived by the work of his or her hands. Benedictine life, therefore, is no idle dependence on the charity of others.

That Rule also emphasizes a commitment to place. As a result, Benedictines have lived, worked and prayed in their respective communities to fashion an existence that could well serve as a model for smaller, more self-reliant secular communities as we struggle to deal with an economy run amok and a climate severely harmed by our actions. The Benedictines truly do think globally, perhaps even Universally, and act locally. For those who want to sample both Benedictine life and cheese, a two-hour trip from Burlington to the Abbey of Saint Benoit du Lac (Saint Benedict of the Lake), Quebec, on Lake Memphremagog would be good for both the palate and the soul.

Thanks for sharing.

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