Show me the honey: Maryland sisters find divine connection in beekeeping

CATONSVILLE, Maryland — With an apron protecting her long, black religious habit, Sister Deborah Rose Rosado marveled at the steady stream of thick, golden melon she poured into a small glass bowl.

Careful to stop the current when the adhesive reached the container’s one-liter capacity, Rosado squeezed the metal cap before one of the all-holy sisters of the poor affixed a label.

“Produced by bees living in the ‘All Saints Sisters of the Poor’ monastery,” the label proudly declares. “Harvested and packaged in Catonsville, Maryland.” Hundreds of thousands of honeybees living in 12 colonies scattered across the religious community’s 100-hectare campus helped produce the bottled honey in Rosado’s hands.

The existence of matter is a feat, Rosado believes, that highlights the intentionality behind God’s creation.

Bees collect nectar from flowers and plants all over the property and within a three-mile radius and bring it back to the hives where they turn it into honey, Rosado said. During the 6-week lifespan of each worker bee, each insect produces only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. But when taken together, this honey is enough to fill more than 200 jars.

“Working with nature and having this honey — this beautiful, golden honey — is very meditative,” Rosado said. “God created these little creatures who do a lot and work hard.”

The Poor Sisters of All Saints first became involved in the cultivation of bee colonies three years ago when two neighbors, both avid beekeepers, asked if they could create a hive on the nuns’ property.

Beekeepers Clement Purcell of Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore and Martin Kersse of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ellicott City tend to the hives and extract honey. The sisters’ job is to package the sweet produce, which is shared between Purcell, Kersse, and the sisters.

Raw honey, all holy sisters of the poor, is sold at the gift shop for $20 a jar, and the proceeds are reinvested into beekeeping.

Honeypot labels feature a depiction of Our Lady of Walsingham, one of the earliest apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, particularly beloved by English Catholics and many Anglicans. It is significant for the Sisters of All Saints Poor, who came to Maryland in 1872 as the American branch of the Anglican religious community in England.

The Sisters of Baltimore were received into the Catholic Church in 2009 by then-Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin F. O’Brien, and are now known as a “diocesan institute” of religious women directed by the Archbishop of Baltimore.

Mother Emily Ann Lindsey, superior general of the religious community, said the five sisters spend several hours every afternoon collecting honey during the summer.

The sisters have long been concerned about nature—feeding bluebirds, rehabilitating injured or sick animals, and promoting the conservation of problem species. In recent years they have raised monarch butterflies.

“We are a community that is part thinking and part active,” Lindsey said. “When you interact with creation, you actually participate in that creation in a different way. It feeds us spiritually because our Lord draws us closer to him with his creations. It gives us opportunities to participate almost as co-creators as we bring new life and sustain it.”

A trained biologist, Purcell said there are many examples of God’s hand in beekeeping. He noted, for example, that when the temperature reaches exactly 57 degrees or lower, the wings of bees stop working.

“So they form a swarm,” said Purcell, who wears protective clothing and uses tranquilizer smoke when managing bee colonies. “They spread their wings and vibrate, which creates heat. They protect the queen bee. This is a miracle of God.”

Lindsey said the honey produced by the sisters’ bees is always sweet, but has different characteristics each year because of what the bees eat. This year’s batch is a slightly darker shade of gold and is thicker than previous years.

She said the hardest part of the sisters’ job is dealing with all the stickiness. The sisters are constantly cleaning windows and keeping surfaces clean, she said. They rely on the intercession of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of beekeepers.

Lindsey said the tedious process of beekeeping and collecting and packaging honey takes time and effort. But it rewards.

“It’s a great use of our property and helps protect bees,” he said, “and you get something nice in return.”

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Matysek is the managing editor of Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.


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