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God's Gouda: Sisters in Albemarle County make cheese

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Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, down a lengthy stretch off Route 250, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery sits perched on the hillside. Inside, the sisters live a self-sustained lifestyle filled with prayer, devotion … and cheese-making. 

The 13 Sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Va., 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 a barn filled with ready-to-use cheese machinery. Without much hesitation, Sister Smickel and the others realized God’s plan. In 1990, the first rounds of cheese were made by the sisters. Today, their semisoft, mild Dutch-style Gouda is produced in 2-pound wheels. 

Thursdays are dedicated cheese-making days at the monastery. The day starts at 3 a.m. with a morning prayer. Around 7 a.m., Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus leaves Mass early to turn on a container used for heating. The windows of the cheese room grow foggy as the room heats to a proper cheese-stirring temperature. The cheese is stirred in 20-minute increments, and the sisters work in shifts in the barn, wearing scrubs and rain boots. 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. Once formed, the cheese waits in one of three chilling rooms to be packaged and sold. 

The process takes six to eight hours — a full day’s work. “We always say the secret ingredient is love and prayer. You get out what you put in,” Sister Gonzalo said. 

Their not-so-secret ingredient is fresh milk delivered from local farms. "We get our milk delivered regularly and locally. We like to know where everything is coming from and exactly what gets put in," Sister Gonzalo said.

“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.” 

And the work never goes to waste. The sisters include the cheese at almost every meal, and the Gouda is especially good for grilled-cheese sandwiches. “How can you get sick of something that you are proud of?” said Sister Saint-Vilus. “We know how it is made and what is in it.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019