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GOD’S GOUDA: Sisters in Albemarle County Make Cheese

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The 13 Sisters of Our Lady of the Angel Monastery squeeze water from the gouda cheese before weighing Thursday morning on March 21, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Thursday is cheese making day at the monastery and cheese process takes about 6-8 hours from start to finish.

By: Erin Edgerton

The 13 Sisters of Our Lady of the Angel Monastery believe God has a plan for everyone. When Sister Barbara Smickel arrived on the newly purchased 507-acre farm in central Virginia in 1987, she was surprised to find an abandoned cheese barn filled with ready-to-use machinery. Without much hesitation, Smickel and the others realized God’s plan.

The first rounds of cheese made by the Sisters were in 1990.  Their semi-soft, mild Dutch-style Gouda comes in 2-pound wheels. The Sisters use it to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, down a lengthy stretch off Route 250, over a bridge, through the woods and at the end of a gravel road sits Our Lady of the Angels Monastery perched on the hillside. This is where the Sisters live a self-sustained lifestyle filled with prayer, devotion and cheese making.

Their day starts around 3 a.m. with a morning prayer. By 7 a.m., Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus leaves mass early to turn on the autoclave. The windows of the cheese room grow foggy as the room heats up to a proper cheese-mixing temperature. By 9 a.m., Sister Maria Gonzalo forms ovals around steel presses, and by 11 a.m., the machines cut the sheets of cheese mixture into cubes. Sister Jacqueline Melendez takes the cubes and squeezes them into molds. They work in shifts and wear scrubs and rain boots in the barn — it’s a full-day affair.

“This work is good,” Sister Eve Marie Aragona said. “It becomes sort of mindless and allows us to work for God in ways similar to prayer and our studies.”

The sisters prepare the patio with candles and a fire for Easter service Saturday evening April 20, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Once the guests arrive this begins their procession into the church for Easter mass.

    

Left: Sister Maria Gonzalo, Sister Barbara Smickel and Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus practice lyrics for their Palm Sunday Mass April 12, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. The three have been practicing all week making sure they hit every note correctly and on key. “This is will be the last night we run it, I promise,” said Smickel. Right: The wash room sits foggy on cheese making days. The cheese making process requires a moist environment.

    

Left: Sister Maria Gonzalo stirs the cheese Thursday morning on March 21, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Thursday is cheese-making day at the monastery and the sisters take turns coming down to the barn in shifts. The cheese is stirred in 20 minute increments, “We always say the secret ingredient is love and prayer. You get out what you put it,” Gonzalo said. Right: Sister Maria Gonzalo checks on the empty milk tank before delivery March 4, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. "We get our milk delivered regularly and locally. We like to know where everything is coming from and exactly what gets put in," Gonzalo said.

     

Left:  Sister Maria Gonzalo opens the curtains to the milk room at the cheese barn. Thursday’s are cheese days and the sisters arrive in shifts down at the barn starting around 7 a.m. Right:  Batch 830 waits in the chilling room to be packaged and sold. The cheese barn has 3 chilling rooms and during the holidays all three can be packed.

    

Left:  Sister Eve Marie Aragona takes a break to call up to the church. Eve Marie prefers working in the cheese barn alone, “I do not really need to this about what I am doing, it is easy, peaceful work,” Aragona said. Right: Sister Jacqueline Melendez mediates during evening vespers March 30, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia.

    

Left: Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus unwraps gouda cheese in the monastery’s kitchen for Sunday’s spaghetti night March 11, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. The sisters use their cheese for almost every meal and it never goes to waste. “How can you get sick of something that you are proud of? We know how it is made and what is in it,” said Saint-Vilus. Right:  Sister Claire Boudrau dishes out spaghetti sauce before supper. The sisters eat family style because it is another way to emphasize community and sharing of blessings. Their Gouda cheese is also served on the table.

The sisters and guests stand in silence as they light candles Saturday evening April 20, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. This ends their procession into the church for Easter mass.

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