Toronto

4 nuns keep Greek Orthodox convent going with help of beeswax, baking and beauty products

A mere 50 km north of the sprawling Greater Toronto Area lies a small Greek Orthodox convent that runs on the devotion and elbow grease of just four nuns, who keep it going with a cottage industry that turns out beeswax candles, baked goods and custom-sewn vestments.

Nuns run small industry while living a monastic life on outskirts of Toronto

Mother Magdalene in chapel at convent lighting beeswax tapers that they make at the convent - candle is the only source of light in the chapel as there is no electricity. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

The four nuns who make up the Holy Theotokos Convent, about 50 km north of Toronto, thrive on beeswax, baked goods and some sewing on the side. 

Their convent, tucked into 20 acres of picturesque rolling hills just north of Stouffville, Ont., is a step back into a simpler, more traditional time. There is no TV and no radio.

The convent is tucked away on 20 acres of picturesque rolling hills in Cedar Valley, north of Stouffville, Ont. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

The women, ranging in age from 45 to 72, dress in traditional black habits, including veils. They consider themselves semi-cloistered, and their days are filled with prayer, traditional services and work.

Once you come in, you just feel like you've left everything else behind.- Sister Irene

"Once you come in, you just feel like you've left everything else behind, and you're just in this quiet place," said Sister Irene, 45, a Ryerson University graduate in tourism and hospitality who grew up in Toronto. She has been a Greek Orthodox nun for 20 years.

The women welcome visitors and do access the internet. It's a modern necessity, according to Mother Magdalene, who has a business degree and oversees the community. Their candle operation, Joyous Light, uses only 100 per cent beeswax and supplies all varieties of candles to the public and churches throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

That, along with a line of all-natural cosmetics and cremes, called Nun Better, pays the bills and allows them to be self-sufficient, although they do get some donations and support from their mother convent in Boston.

The nuns keep their convent going by selling beeswax candles, baked goods and doing some sewing on the side. (Maureen Brosnahan)

Sister Irene acknowledges the irony of nuns selling body products. "But it's needed," she says, laughing. "You always need some kind of soap, some kind of moisturizing bar. With the baking and the candles, our hands do get wear and tear, and so we do appreciate a nice cream and we do use it ourselves."

Moved from Boston 14 years ago

The nuns, all originally from Canada, came to the area in 2001 after their mother convent in Boston ran out of room and the community decided to expand.  The Greek Orthodox Church has only one order of nuns, and prior to 2001, their only North American convents were in Boston and Seattle.

"We were looking for properties, and we had come up from Boston. We had seen a few different properties, but none of them really fit," said Mother Magdalene. 

Their real estate agent suggested checking out the site in Cedar Valley, a former retreat centre for auto parts manufacturer Magna International. It wasn't yet on the market. "We drove by, and without even seeing it all, we said 'This is it,'" said Mother Magdalene. 

The site includes a main convent building, above, and an adjacent candle-making facility. The nuns also maintain the grounds, cutting trees and grass in summer, plowing paths and roads in winter and tending to natural spring-fed ponds stocked with fish. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

Their candle factory is located in a building adjacent to the convent. It operates daily as the nuns, with occasional help from volunteers, churn out tens of thousands of candles each year — tapers, votives, pillars and novelty shapes. They go through more than 20,000 kilograms of beeswax annually, which they purchase from beekeepers across Canada. 

"The bee is just an amazing creature, and the beeswax is such a beautiful product," Mother Magdalene said. "As it burns, it's also very healthy as well, it takes out the negative ions in the area, prevents allergies and promotes better sleep. These are very clean, don't create soot and don't blacken the walls."

Sister Irene added that they also use the waste candle wicks and wax to make small fire-starter logs, which they also sell. "They're about three inches long, and all you do is light one end of them, and it slowly burns and lights your fire," she said. "We don't throw away pretty much anything at all."

Echoes of Greek and Russian Orthodox churches

Inside the convent, the walls are covered with elaborate artwork, hand carvings, painting and iconography, much of it imported from Greece and Russia. The chapel has no artificial light, and the nuns and clergy conduct their services by candle light. The dining and living areas have many large and open windows that overlook the rural landscape. 

Sister Irene, left, and Mother Magdalene are two of four nuns who live on the property. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

Their days begin with chanting and prayers, in elaborate services sometimes lasting two hours. Visiting clergy are often welcomed, but men and women sit and eat separately. Music and sound is piped throughout the building. Apart from cooking, sewing and candle-making, the nuns run their own errands and visit the sick in local hospitals. 

The nuns also maintain the grounds, including the natural spring-fed ponds stocked with fish. They cut trees and grass in summer and plow the paths and roads in winter. Mother Magdalene said she is often up before dawn in the winter months, manoeuvring her large Ford F150 truck with its front plow.

"It keeps us fit, that's for sure," she said.

Baking draws the neighbours

In addition to making candles and body products, the nuns also sew elaborate custom vestments for Eastern Orthodox priests and sell Greek wedding, baptismal and religious books and items.

"It's a pretty big demand. We have some people who want things done for Christmas, and we're already starting into Easter season if you can believe it," said Mother Magdalene.

The site of the convent used to be a retreat for Magna International before the nuns moved in in 2001. 'We drove by, and without even seeing it all, we said "This is it,"' said Mother Magdalene. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

But Sister Irene says it's their baking – traditional sweetbreads, cookies and confections — that draw in the neighbours.

"When we're baking bread, you can smell it all over the neighbourhood," she said.

She acknowledges that monastic life is not for everyone. "It's a hard decision. You kind of give up a lot, so it's not the most popular choice for people nowadays."

But she said she's happy with her choice and doesn't miss much despite being somewhat detached from the outside world.

"I think our days are so full and so busy. I don't think we'd have the time for it even if we wanted it." 

About the Author

Maureen Brosnahan

National reporter with CBC Radio

Maureen is a veteran national reporter for CBC Radio. She joined CBC in Winnipeg and was appointed national reporter in 1991. She has since been the correspondent for national Radio News in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. She is now based in Toronto. She has won numerous awards for her work at CBC covering health and social policy issues.