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Benedictine Christmas Trees
Photos by Karen Callaway, text by Susan Hines-Brigger
For the monks of Marmion Abbey in Aurora, Illinois, selling Christmas trees is more than just a business.

Q U I C K S C A N

A New Venture
Working the Farm
Year-round Work

 

STARTING the weekend after Thanksgiving, many families will begin the quest for the perfect Christmas tree. For some people that quest will take them to Marmion Abbey, on the northeast side of Aurora, Illinois, in the western suburbs of Chicago.

It is a yearly event that began in the late ’60s, when the Benedictine monks of the abbey stopped raising dairy cows and growing crops, such as corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and started planting trees.

A New Venture

The tree farm, which sits on 100 acres of the abbey grounds and consists of approximately 100,000 Austrian, white and Scotch pines and spruce trees, began in 1959 with funding from a special federal soil-bank program.

The federal program was instituted to help stabilize the price of farm produce and for soil conservation. It paid farmers on a monthly basis not to grow crops, but rather let the soil go back to grass or plant trees that the government would provide. The monks picked the latter. As part of the agreement, the monks could not sell anything for 10 years.

Father Andrew points out the location of different types of trees on the farm to Leslie Schoettes of Batavia, Illinois.

“After 10 years we had a lot of Christmas trees out there and we went into the Christmas-tree business,” says Father Andrew Wahmhoff, who runs the abbey’s tree farm.

Now over 30 years later, it has become a tradition for many families. Doug and Diane Smith have been coming to the farm for the last seven years. But unlike most people in search of the “perfect” Christmas tree, Doug and Diane come in search of imperfection. Last year, they even braved an early-season snowstorm in order to get their tree.

The reason? They have an angel collection they like to tuck into the holes of the tree. They cite the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) as their inspiration.

“You know the Bible verse that says, ‘What is heaven like? It’s like birds in a tree’?” says Doug, paraphrasing the verse. “This is like angels in a tree. That’s what heaven’s going to be like.”

Father Andrew says the tree farm is a ministry on a number of levels. “It’s a ministry to the abbey especially because the proceeds from the Christmas trees are a big help to putting dinner on our table, paying insurance and all that stuff,” he says.

But the real joy, he says, comes when people start arriving to find and cut down their own Christmas tree.

Oblate Martha Piorkowski volunteers on the weekends to help make wreaths, door swags and crosses from fresh boughs that are sold at the tree farm at Christmas. Proceeds from the sales go to various charities.

“Frequently it’s a family affair, and you see those families coming and the kids are just excited as can be. It’s a lovely family day,” he says. “It’s very gratifying to be a part of that. It’s nice that they bring the kids along because you can hear the kids saying, ‘Oh, Daddy, here’s one! Here’s one!’ And sometimes the kids persuade the parents to take a Charlie Brown tree.”

Father Andrew says that the farm has sold 5,000 trees each year for the past several years.

“It is exciting the first two weekends in December with approximately 1,000 cars all over the campus on each Saturday and Sunday, with families going on their tree hunt. Everyone (almost) is happy and having such fun,” he says.

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Working the Farm

Father Andrew began working on the tree farm in 1982, helping Father Bede Stocker, who was in charge at the time.

Matt Dunn helps his daughter, Megan, with her mittens. Matt and his family are members of Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago.

“Father Bede was getting older and needed help, so I jumped in,” says Father Andrew. In time, Father Andrew took over the operation of the tree farm. But, he says, Father Bede, now 92, still “likes to get out when he can. He does things that even I wouldn’t want to do.”

For Father Andrew, working on the farm came naturally.

“I grew up on an onion farm in Michigan so I’ve got farming in my blood, I guess. I like to be outside. I like to be working with growing things,” he says. “The trees make a lot of progress from year to year. It’s just lovely to see that and very gratifying to have had a hand in it. I’ve had my hand in planting all of those 100,000 Christmas trees out there.”

It also didn’t hurt that both of his brothers were very involved in Christmas tree farming in Michigan.

Year-round Work

The height of the tree farm’s business centers around Christmas, but work goes full-steam year-round. Throughout the year, Father Andrew is responsible for ordering seedlings, preparing the ground for the next planting and planting the seedlings.

With the help of a tree-planting machine, Father Andrew says, “We can plant 500 in an hour, so that adds up pretty quick. We plant 8,000 a year now. That’s what we aim at.” He also tackles weed control, such as herbicides and mowing, and pest control.

“Every plant has its enemies, and Christmas trees are no exception,” he says. The farm also offers landscape trees for sale throughout the year.

Having found their “imperfect” tree, Doug and Diane Smith shake off the snow and start the trek back from the fields.

Students from Marmion Academy, an all-male, college-prep high school located on the abbey’s grounds, pitch in and help with shearing and shaping the trees as they grow. Father Andrew points out, “God makes wonderful landscape trees, but he needs a lot of help to make a Christmas tree that people like. That’s 100,000 trees out there and, once they get to be four years old they need a lot of attention each year.”

As if his work on the tree farm isn’t enough to keep him busy, Father Andrew helps out in local parishes celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. He also does some substitute teaching at Marmion Academy, where he taught Latin for 48 years before retiring last May. The only reason he didn’t make 50 years as he had planned was due to unforeseen health problems, from which he still feels the effects.

Next year, he will celebrate 50 years as a priest. But he certainly doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In fact, on the morning of our telephone interview, he was out mowing grass on the tree farm. After all, there’s work to be done. And come this month, people will be arriving in search of that perfect Christmas tree.

You can find more information about Marmion Abbey’s tree farm at www.marmion.org.


Karen Callaway is staff photographer for the Archdiocese of Chicago and its three Catholic publications. Before that, she spent 20 years at the Northwest Indiana Catholic. Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this publication. For years, she and her family have been cutting down their own Christmas tree at a tree farm in Batesville, Indiana.

 


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