The Millionaire Monks, a small monastic community in rural Wisconsin celebrated for its wildly successful Internet business selling laser-printer inks and toners, has gone out of business.
MILWAUKEE — They were dubbed the Millionaire Monks, a small monastic community in rural Wisconsin celebrated around the world for its wildly successful Internet business selling laser-printer inks and toners.
As recently as 2009, the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank was projecting annual sales of $3.5 million for its for-profit business, LaserMonks. Their prior and chief executive officer, Father Bernard McCoy, was talking expansion of the company and the abbey.
Today, the monks’ 15,000-square-foot home on 500 acres in Sparta, Wis., is all but empty. The monks sold their belongings — everything from furniture and farm equipment to religious artifacts — at an auction last month, and they have put much of their land and buildings up for sale.
LaserMonks ceased operating last spring, though the abbey since has sold its name and customer list to a California firm. The monks went their separate ways. McCoy, touted as the LaserMonks’ marketing genius, is in Ireland, overseeing a community of nuns, according to a relative. The relative and the monks’ lawyer said they did not know how to reach him.
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Attorney Kevin Roop of La Crosse, Wis., who represents the abbey, blames increased competition and the downturn in the economy for the liquidation of LaserMonks and the dissolution of the abbey on the business failure and a dwindling interest in monastic life.
But the monks have a history of failed or attempted business ventures. And their seemingly sudden change of fortune has raised questions about their business acumen and some say less-than-Spartan lifestyle.
“It’s very troubling,” said Terry Nelson of Minneapolis, a former Trappist novice who writes about monastic communities on a blog he calls Abbey Roads. “A year ago he [McCoy] was talking about growing vocations, building a new church. … And then it’s just gone? How can a monastery just disappear?”
Debt a factor
Details are not clear, but one significant factor appears to be the abbey’s debt. Since 2006, the monks have used their property as collateral to secure $3.1 million in mortgages, including a $1.4 million loan from the Valley of Our Lady, a nearby community of Cistercian nuns, according to records on file with the Monroe County Register of Deeds.
The nuns’ superior did not return a telephone call. But Bryan Simonson, vice president of Stoddard, Wis.-based River Bank, which loaned the abbey nearly $1.8 million over that time, said the notes were new loans and refinancings of existing mortgages and lines of credit opened for the monks’ business and living expenses over the years, and that a portion of the debt has been paid.
Simonson and Roop declined to say how much the abbey owes. But the banker said the monks never defaulted on a loan and he doesn’t expect them to do so now.
“I hold the abbey in the highest regard,” Simonson said. “They have a very viable exit strategy, and we do not expect to incur any losses.”
The shuttering of the abbey appears to be the end of a nearly century-old community, founded on the shores of Oconomowoc Lake, that moved to Sparta in the 1980s so the monks could better fulfill their lives of prayer and contemplation, according to a news story at the time. The new abbey, now listed for sale at $2.6 million, was built to accommodate nearly 20 monks, but membership hovered at fewer than 10 in recent years and had dwindled to three by the time it closed.
Cistercians, an ancient order that broke off from the Benedictines in the Middle Ages, traditionally are self-supporting. But the Spring Bank monks struggled to find a business to sustain themselves.
McCoy, who joined the abbey in the 1990s, attempted or explored several ventures — growing shiitake mushrooms, real-estate development (they were sued as a result of one project) and a luxury golf course — before alighting on the ink-and-toner business in 2001.
The abbey struck what many saw as black gold, bringing in as much as $4.5 million a year by 2008 with marketing that stressed the monks’ simple life of prayer and a promise to give a portion of the profits to charity. At one point, McCoy said the abbey was giving $125,000 a year to charitable causes.
Two women, Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, who billed themselves as Monk Helper Marketing, ran LaserMonks from a building on the abbey grounds. But McCoy was its face, flying around the country in a donated single-engine Piper touting the LaserMonk philosophy of social entrepreneurism.
At home, he and his fellow monks lived a quiet, if not austere existence, much of it involving prayer and Gregorian chant. Outside the chapel, they pursued their interests — painting, photography, caring for the abbey’s Peruvian Paso horses and mentoring teens who visited as part of a youth group — all in pursuit of what McCoy called a life of otium sanctum, or holy leisure.
At the same time, he continued to explore other ventures: He added soy-based inks and toners as a green alternative to LaserMonks’ inventory and expanded into other products, including coffee and dog biscuits. He also oversaw construction of a 2,500-square-foot log home for visitors to the abbey. That home is being sold for $250,000.
Lack of ‘balance’?
McCoy also repeatedly identified himself as founder or executive director of the Torchlight Foundation, which has been called a nonprofit to benefit the abbey’s charitable interests and a program to finance curricula that teaches young people about social entrepreneurism. Neither the state of Wisconsin nor the IRS lists an organization by that name as a nonprofit or tax-exempt entity. However, it could be registered as a nonprofit in another state.
When the business began to falter is not clear. Caniglia, who with Griffith now operates an online popcorn business for a Tucson, Ariz., order of Benedictine nuns, said LaserMonks was profitable when they left about nine months ago. Holly Grady, executive director of the Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce, said the company struggled for the past two years, but that McCoy was optimistic about its future as recently as January. She was surprised, she said, when the business closed last spring.
One former postulant of the abbey, who asked not to be identified because it would hurt his placement with another community, blamed its demise on a “life out of balance.”
“The Benedictine way is all about balance. But this had become too many outside trips, late-night outings and dinners with benefactors,” he said. “People believed they had millions in the bank, but I think they were robbing Peter to pay Paul.”