WINDSOR — Sister Elizabeth Wagner and Sister Bernadette Kasinathan live prayerful, contemplative lives at Transfiguration Hermitage amid the quiet of the fields and woods of the Windsor countryside.

And they make hot sauce, jam and brandy-soaked fruitcakes by the hundreds and sell them online.

They’re hermits. But not the kind of hermits who live in secluded shacks with no contact with the rest of the world.

They’re hermits in the sense that they follow the monastic rule, or way, of St. Benedict, a Roman Catholic monk who lived a life of solitude and prayer.

“People think solitude is about looking inward,” Wagner said. “But the life of a hermit is not about turning in on oneself. It is about being available to God, and to our neighbors. It’s about a life of prayer for the needs of all people. This life of ours is about growing close to God, through prayer.”

But even prayerful, contemplative people living in a hermitage have bills to pay.

That’s where the 800 fruitcakes, neatly wrapped in French brandy-soaked muslin cloth, aging in what Wagner calls fruitcake central in the basement of their small retreat house, come in.

The sisters sell the fruitcakes, as well as habanero based hot sauce, and cookies and other items, both at church bake sales in the area and online. And be assured, this is a 21st century operation — they have a website, www.transfigurationhermitage.org., take PayPal and are reachable by email.

The baking started when Kasinathan, a native of Singapore, joined the hermitage in 1998, when it was in Thorndike, and wanted a way to contribute financially, as Wagner wove vestry clothing to sell and taught at Bangor Theological Seminary.

So she started making food in the then-tiny kitchen, making spicy Indian dishes to sell at farmers’ markets. As people discovered how good the food was, demand grew.

“Out of the blue, I thought I’d make some fruitcakes for Christmas, my mom’s traditional way,” Kasinathan said. “Soaked in brandy. Now, we make 800 a year. I have a girl in the neighborhood who helps me. We make about 40 cakes a day. From February to June or July. Then they need to age.”

Kasinathan bakes them and Wagner decorates and ships them. They sell online for $22.50 each. The traditional English fruitcakes are moist and rich, and come covered in pecans and candied cherries.

While both sisters are quick to smile and laugh, their fruitcakes are not the ones that have made the snack a holiday joke about unwanted, dry, fruitcake that gets re-gifted multiple times.

“A moist cake is a good cake,” Wagner, originally from Connecticut, said recently as she brushed a fresh layer of brandy onto a fruitcake before wrapping it in a box for shipping. “The dry cakes — that’s where the fruitcake jokes come from. We get many, many compliments.”

Both of the 63-year-olds came to Catholicism, and Maine, late in their lives. In the case of Maine, because of its cold and snow, both came somewhat begrudgingly.

“I came to Maine kicking and screaming, it felt like Siberia,” Wagner joked. “But in retrospect Maine is a great place for contemplative life. God knows what’s best.”

The hermitage moved from Thorndike to its 67-acre Windsor site in 2006, into a modern, super-insulated and efficient building which includes monastic cells which serve as their living quarters, a kitchen with commercial-grade stainless steel equipment, a multiple-use room with a television and library where retreats are held and a small chapel where the Rev. Mark Nolette, who also lives at the hermitage, offers Mass to both the sisters and public four weekdays a week.

The hermitage hosts retreats both in the main building and its retreat house, built in 2010.

They hope to build a chapel attached to the back of the main building next year.

A prayer trail on a former logging road goes about two-thirds of a mile into the surrounding woods, and a Stations of the Cross trail was recently added on the grounds by the Knights of Columbus.

Also sharing the living space are Daisy Mae the large white dog, and Brother Sophronius, the cat.

All faiths, or even people who don’t practice religion, are welcome at the retreat house.

The sisters hope the hermitage will continue well into the future. While the two sisters have been the only nuns to stay long-term, they have several current vocation candidates who have expressed interest in joining the hermitage.

“I am confident it will continue,” Wagner said. “We have a wonderful board of directors and wonderful benefactors. And there is a renewed interest in contemplative life. I think the new Pope has been a breath of fresh air, and I hope that continues.”

Wagner hopes more people will find their calling, whether it is, like her, in the hermitage, or elsewhere.

“I encourage people to follow their calling, their dreams,” she said. “If you follow what you sincerely believe you are called to do, and do the best you can with it, God supports you in that.”
 
Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]