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Building community through syrup

By Samantha Hilyer

If you think back to your time on campus this semester, you might remember bright orange strings on select trees catching your eye all over campus. These bright markers have a very specific purpose: they are being used to indicate which trees are good to be tapped for sap, which will then be boiled down to make maple syrup.

Father Lawrence Machia is currently running the maple sugaring program which has been operating for five years at Saint Vincent.

"It started as a conversation with five monks at breakfast," Father Lawrence said, "One monk bought taps and tubing and the next thing you know, we’re [maple sugaring]."

Grandma Moses' painting "Sugaring Off," which depicts a community involved in maple sugaring (Source: Grandma Moses)

Father Lawrence described the program as a partnership between the Archabbey and the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve. Angela Belli, Jennifer Eppolito, and various volunteers and students from Belli’s Science of Sustainable Living class at the Nature Reserve, assist Father Lawrence in the process of collecting sap and making the syrup.

"It’s about community, it’s about reaching out, drawing people together. It’s very Benedictine." - Father Lawrence Machia

Once Father Lawrence, Belli and Eppolito tap the trees using a drill, spiels are inserted into the holes, which do not harm the trees if done properly, and then buckets are attached beneath the spiels in order to collect the sap. Every day, volunteers/students transfer the sap to a designated space in a freezer in the cafeteria where it is being stored until it will all be boiled down into syrup.

Father Lawrence’s goal this year was to collect 500 gallons of sap, which roughly equals 12 gallons of syrup, covering the needs of the monastery and provide enough for the volunteers to share in the “fruits of their labor” as well.

Father Lawrence, O.S.B., affectionately dubbed the ‘Maple Monk’, poses by a tree that had been recently tapped for sap collection. (Source: Hilyer)

Unfortunately, he does not believe that this goal will be met as the season has already begun to warm up and the trees have begun to show signs of budding. Sap flow is best stimulated by warm days and cold snaps at night, and once the trees bud, the sap that is collected will be bitter and cannot be used to make syrup.

In past years, Father Lawrence has made his own evaporator in order to boil down the sap into syrup. He had made two different models before he and the rest of the people involved in the process took a break from sap collecting in order to fundraise for a professional evaporator. Before students were sent home due to the Coronavirus situation, Father Lawrence was hopeful that many volunteers, especially students, would be willing to give their time on the day sap boiling begins, which was estimated to be in April, using the new evaporator.

“We want to involve all kinds of people in maple sugaring.” Father Lawrence said, “As it can be seen in Grandma Moses’ painting, ‘Sugaring Off’, it’s about community, it’s about reaching out, drawing people together. It’s very Benedictine.”


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