WINDSOR, Maine — Thirteen miles east of Augusta, quietly nestled on a hill in Windsor, Maine sits Transfiguration Hermitage. Situated in a green expanse of woods and quiet streams and blueberry fields, the environment is the perfect backdrop for a community of Benedictine contemplative nuns.
Sister Elizabeth, Sister Bernadette, and Sister Anastasia live and pray together, bound by the Ancient Rule of St. Benedict. Like so many Benedictines, their life is not flashy. Their days are spent in prayer, both personal and communal. They seek God’s presence, mindful of His grace and attentive to His quiet, small whispers, all the while maintaining a thriving and vibrant baking business.
If you’ve heard of Transfiguration, it’s probably because of their delicious fruit or rum cakes.
Sister Elizabeth spoke with Rhode Island Catholic on what life is like at Transfiguration, how they manage all the baking, ordering, shipping and stay committed to St. Benedict’s rule, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas, their busy time of year.
It was clear from the get-go that the sisters have their feet in two worlds: a quiet, contemplative life of prayer and an active life of baking.
“It’s the same as it is for anyone,” Sister Elizabeth says. “We begin with the intention of trying to stay in God’s presence with whatever we’re doing. We try to notice and pay attention to God. Depending on what we’re doing, we might pray the rosary silently or repeat the Jesus prayer. But baking requires a lot of concentration, so we do what we can.”
Transfiguration Hermitage was founded in 1997 as a Benedictine contemplative community, rooted in communal prayer and solitude. The sisters “pray for the needs of all people and provide outreach to anyone seeking spiritual growth.” They meet four times a day to pray: morning prayer, evening prayer, night prayer, and Mass. (The sisters are lucky to have a retired priest in residence on their grounds.)
At other points, the religious women pray alone in their cells, usually reflecting on scripture in the traditional Benedictine style of lectio divina.
The sisters weren’t always in Augusta. They were originally founded in a different Maine town, but unfortunately their earlier years were marked by tension, mostly from town officials. Sister Elizabeth was quick to note the locals were kind and welcoming, but because of Maine’s history as the most “unchurched state east of the Mississippi,” town officials were constantly trying to tax them and their property.
“Town officials did not want to give tax-exempt status to us, but luckily, we had—and still have — a wonderful attorney.”
“After our first year, we got a large tax bill. We brought the town to court, but the town didn’t hear our case, so we took it to the county and they approved our tax-exempt status.”
The town, Sister Elizabeth said, went on to tax them again. Again, the sisters brought their case to the county and won. After a few cycles of this, they decided to move.
“We’ve been delighted with Windsor since the day we arrived,” she said.
But, why baking?
It mostly had to do with Sister Bernadette, explained Sister Elizabeth. Prior to entering Transfiguration, Sister Bernadette was a member of a different religious community. There, she and the nuns were invited to sell goods at local farmer markets. Baking and selling cakes became a way of supporting themselves, so eventually, when she later joined Transfiguration, it was natural she continued baking.
And, why fruit and rum cakes?
“A number of reasons,” she said. “First, they ship and keep well. We start making them in January and finish our production sometime in May.”
“We follow a regular baking schedule where, after we bake the cakes, we wrap them in brandy-soaked cloths. We then put them in sealed containers and store them in special cellars where they age for six, sometimes eight, months. After that, we take them out, remove the cloths, brush them with more brandy, decorate them, wrap them in two layers of saran so they stay fresh. Then they’re good to go.”
Rhode Island Catholic asked what their customers think. Before he could finish the question, Sister smiled and replied, “They’re the best cakes they’ve ever had. That’s what they always say.”
Less popular, though just as delicious, are the jams and hot sauces they sell. The Sisters make a variety of berry-based jams, including flavors like Wild Blackberry Delight, Red Raspberry, Very Berry, Peach Preserve, Wild Blueberry, and Strawberry. Sister Bernadette’s Super Hot Sauce is said to be the best hot sauce you’ll ever taste according to customer reviews. She makes it with chili paste, garlic, onions and tamarind.
The COVID pandemic wasn’t kind to most, but its impact on the sisters was a unique one.
“To be honest, COVID was great for us. We were already used to selling and shipping our products, so that didn’t change. We got more online orders. But it was somehow less busy. Our life is oriented towards prayer and solitude, so the pandemic allowed us to immerse ourselves fully into that.”
Along with baking, the sisters have a small retreat house where they welcome those looking to rest and pray.
“You know, those who come and make a retreat…We post the schedule for the office and when the chapel is open. A few people join us for communal prayers. Most, though, just need quiet and nothing to do. Most people nowadays just need to ‘veg’ out.”
“Life today is so busy,” she said. “It is so rushed and hurried. We’re so bombarded with texts and emails and calls. We’re online all the time. And anyone with a family — I don’t have to say how demanding that can be.”
Sister Elizabeth then shared a bit of advice about prayer.
“Don’t worry about how you’re praying. Just quiet down. See what surfaces and talk to God about that. That’s all people need, really.”
For anyone interested in ordering their cakes or any other product, visit www.transfigurationhermitage.org.