MILWAUKEE — They were dubbed the Millionaire Monks, a small monastic community in rural Wisconsin feted around the world for its wildly successful Internet business selling laser printer inks and toners.
As recently as 2009, the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank was projecting annual sales of $3.5 million for its for-profit business, LaserMonks Inc. And their prior and CEO, Father Bernard McCoy, was talking expansion — of both the company and the abbey.
Today, the monks' 15,000-square-foot home on 500 acres in Sparta, Wis., is all but empty. They sold off their belongings — everything from furniture and farm equipment to religious artifacts — at an auction last month. And they have put much of their land and buildings up for sale.
LaserMonks ceased operating in the spring, though the abbey has since sold its name and customer list to a California firm. And the monks have gone their separate ways. McCoy, who was touted as the LaserMonks' marketing genius, is now in Ireland, overseeing a community of nuns, according to a family member. Both she and the monks' lawyer said they did not know how to reach him.
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Attorney Kevin Roop of La Crosse, Wis., who represents the abbey, blames increased competition and the downturn in the economy for the liquidation of LaserMonks; and the dissolution of the abbey on the business failure and a dwindling interest in monastic life.
But the monks have a history of failed or attempted business ventures. And now their seemingly sudden change of fortune has raised questions about their business acumen and some say less-than-spartan lifestyle.
"It's very troubling," said Terry Nelson of Minneapolis, a former Trappist novice who writes about monastic communities on a blog he calls Abbey Roads. "A year ago he (McCoy) was talking about growing vocations, building a new church. ... And then it's just gone? How can a monastery just disappear?"
The details are not entirely clear, but one significant factor appears to be the abbey's debt. Since 2006, the monks have used their property as collateral to secure $3.1 million in mortgages, including a $1.4 million loan from the Valley of Our Lady Inc., a nearby community of Cistercian nuns, according to records on file with the Monroe County Register of Deeds.
The nuns' superior did not return a telephone call seeking comment. But Bryan Simonson, vice president of Stoddard, Wis.-based River Bank, which loaned the abbey nearly $1.8 million over that time, said the notes were new loans and refinancings of existing mortgages and lines of credit opened for the monks' business and living expenses over the years, and that a portion of the debt has been paid.
Simonson and Roop declined to say how much the abbey still owes, but said the monks have never defaulted on a loan and that he doesn't expect them to do so now.
"I hold the abbey in the highest regard," Simonson said. "They have a very viable exit strategy, and we do not expect to incur any losses."
The shuttering of the abbey appears to be the end of a nearly century-old community of monks, founded on the shores of Oconomowoc Lake, that moved to Sparta in the 1980s to better fulfill their lives of prayer and contemplation, according to a news story at the time. The new abbey, now listed for sale at $2.6 million, was built to accommodate nearly 20 monks, but membership hovered under 10 in recent years and had dwindled to just three by the time it closed.
McCoy, who joined the abbey in the 1990s, explored several ventures — growing shiitake mushrooms, real estate development (they were sued as a result of one project) and a luxury golf course — before alighting on the ink and toner business in 2001.
The abbey struck what many saw as black gold, bringing in as much as $4.5 million a year by 2008 with marketing that stressed the monks' simple life of prayer and a promise to give a portion of the profits to charity. At one point, McCoy said it was giving $125,000 a year to charitable causes.
Just when the business began to falter is not clear. Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, who billed themselves as Monk Helper Marketing, actually ran LaserMonks from a building on the abbey grounds. Caniglia, who with Griffith now operates an online popcorn business for a Tucson, Ariz., order of Benedictine nuns, said LaserMonks was profitable when they left about nine months ago. Holly Grady, executive director of the Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the company struggled for the past two years, but that McCoy was optimistic about its future as recently as January. She was surprised, she said, when the business closed last spring.
One former postulant of the abbey, who asked not to be identified because it would hurt his placement with another community, blamed its demise on a "life out of balance."
"The Benedictine way is all about balance. But this had become too many outside trips, late-night outings and dinners with benefactors," he said. "People believed they had millions in the bank, but I think they were robbing Peter to pay Paul."