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Monks in the Computer Age

January 6, 1995

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) _ Ever since St. Benedict prescribed ``prayer and work″ for monks in the first century, most of their labors have remained age-old tasks like copying manuscripts, farming and raising animals.

Now 30 monks and nuns at six monasteries are using computers in their efforts to lead productive _ and pious _ lives.

They are working for Electronic Scriptorium Ltd., an information management business named after the rooms in monasteries used for copying manuscripts, studying and writing. The monks and nuns are computerizing library card catalogs, creating document indexes and entering and checking data for publications.

Company president Edward M. Leonard said some of the older monks look askance at his business.

``But the younger monks just love it,″ he said. ``They see the computer as an extension of the monastery and something holy.″

The company got its start in October 1991 when the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., hired Leonard to bring its fruitcake business on line. Leonard then left his job with a Washington computer manufacturer to develop his own business in Leesburg, about 30 miles away.

``At the end of six months of working with the monks, I realized here was a competent and underemployed work force,″ Leonard said.

A friend suggested the monks could catalog the medical records of Johns Hopkins University. The next contract was to computerize part of the Yale University library.

The monks and nuns earn $8 to $12 per hour, and each monastery owns its own computer equipment. Leonard estimated his company’s 1994 revenue at $1 million; he would not disclose profits.

Leona Wilkins, head librarian for the Amherst County Public Library, hired Electronic Scriptorium for $12,000 last winter to computerize a 32,000-card catalog.

She attributed the ``remarkably error-free″ results to the lack of distraction in the lives of the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago.

``They were taking prayer breaks, not coffee breaks,″ she said. ``They weren’t worried about what to serve for dinner that night, or what they were doing that weekend.″

The work of three monks and a nun now provides the majority of income for the Monastery of the Holy Cross, said Father Patrick Creeden.

The work has allowed the brothers to quit their outside jobs. One was bagging groceries, Creeden was a hospital chaplain and another worked at a nursing home.

The switch has helped the monks achieve their mission of a contemplative life in the city because now all are available for group prayer, Creeden said.

Creeden said St. Benedict probably would approve of the new work. As a member of the Monks of Jerusalem, an urban contemplative order that seeks to confront the problems of cities, Creeden said the computers seem an appropriate tool.

``What could be more contemporary than cyberspace?″ he asked.

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