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How a solitary monk, known for his soup, united a community

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, a Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lies in his bed at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, a Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lies in his bed at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. (Photos by Angus Mordant for The Washington Post)

As dusk began to fall on Jan. 10, 2001, Ray Patchey just wanted to get home to his family for his birthday dinner.

A lineman with Verizon, Patchey had been sent out to repair telephone lines following a snowstorm in rural Dutchess County, N.Y. Chilled to the bone, Patchey and another technician were just packing up to leave when the door to the nearby farmhouse swung open and a voice called out, “Don’t go, I’ve made some soup for you!”

Looking up, Patchey saw a Benedictine monk, clothed in traditional habit and sandals, standing in the doorway, and thought, “How can I say no?”

Little did he know that the monk was a best-selling cookbook author with legions of fans around the world. That bowl of soup, like so many others that Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette has shared with friends and strangers alike over the course of several decades while living mostly alone at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery, was just the beginning.

Now 82, Brother Victor is the author of some 18 books, half of which are cookbooks that have collectively sold in the millions and been translated into multiple languages, including French, Japanese and Dutch. Born in Lées-Athas, a village in southwestern France’s Pyrenees mountains, Brother Victor grew up eating food that was cooked in rhythm with the seasons, saying now: “There is nothing like the French way of cooking, and everyone I knew cooked well — my mother, my grandmother. Everything we ate, vegetables, cheese, bread, was fresh and local.”

Make Brother Victor's recipe for Monastic Garlic Soup

But one day, when young Victor was 16, he walked down the road to the local monastery in pursuit of a more contemplative life. Under the rule of St. Benedict, the strong emphasis on cultivating a self-supporting community requires the brothers to tend to all the needs of the monastery, including growing most of their own food and cooking communal meals. Brother Victor began serving as an assistant cook in the kitchen, where soup was a common component of every meal.

So it’s no accident that nearly every person’s recollections of Brother Victor seem to include sitting around the kitchen table with a bowl of it. Today, Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery sits quietly among the trees and fields, filled with the memories of those moments of communion.

It was this solitude that first drew Elise Boulding to the monastery in the early 1970s. A renowned peace activist, Boulding had been intrigued by monastic life for many years and, during her first spiritual retreat, was struck by how, as she later wrote, “monasteries have kitchens and monks have to cook.” Eventually, she approached Brother Victor, who had come to the United States in 1966 to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University before resuming a cloistered existence in the Hudson Valley, about writing a cookbook. The result was “From a Monastery Kitchen” in 1976, a 127-page collection of mostly vegetarian recipes, as monastic life generally precludes eating four-legged animals.

That first edition reads, in many ways, like a typical community cookbook, a hodgepodge of quotes, images and collected recipes, ranging from Brother Victor’s French-inspired lentil soufflé to a yeasted Christmas bread calling for 2½ pounds of raisins. In the introduction, Boulding, who died in 2010, wrote that the book was “intended to open the monastery door in a symbolic way for those who may never come here but who would like to evoke the peace of the monastery in their own kitchens.” As her son Bill says, “Creating community motivated everything she did.”

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Indeed, Boulding had clearly recognized that other people would be equally drawn to the idea of preparing and sharing simple, seasonal meals, of creating their own culinary oasis in the storm of everyday life. It was her only foray into the world of cookbook writing, but it opened a door for Brother Victor, who took on revising a new edition of the book a decade later. The result, released in 1989, is spare and elegant, showcasing a single recipe and woodcut image per page, highlighting his clear-eyed understanding of what constitutes a good cookbook: an evocative theme, a distinct progression of recipes and an invitation to the reader to collaborate.

Monks and nuns often need an entrepreneurial flair to keep their communities afloat, and Brother Victor was no exception. “Brother Victor is a deeply spiritual and beautiful soul,” says Richard Rothschild, a book packager who helped produce three cookbooks with him in 2010. “He’s also deeply business-minded.”

Ann Shershin, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., resident who began volunteering at the monastery in 2007 when her son was doing an Eagle Scout project there, saw Brother Victor’s marketing prowess up close, particularly when she began helping him host an annual festival promoting his locally celebrated homemade vinegars the next year. “Brother Victor had done a vinegar sale in the summers before,” says Shershin, “but this was a real festival, with other vendors coming to sell their wares also. Cars were lining up to get in.” Patchey had been learning the art of vinegar making from Brother Victor as well, volunteering his time to help increase production. In its heyday, the festival brought in as much as $12,000 — a small fortune for a self-sufficient monastery.

The vinegar business brought with it a certain amount of fame. New York City chefs purchased the vinegars for their restaurants; there were television appearances and even a particularly striking photograph by Italian photographer Francesco Mastalia for his 2014 book, “Organic.” Curator Gail Buckland wrote of the photograph, “The book opens with Brother Victor-Antoine looking towards the heavens, allowing the holy light to fall upon him … a bottle of his prized vinegar in one hand, a hoe in the other.” The vinegar, says Cheryl Rogowski, a second-generation farmer in Pine Island, N.Y, was truly special, made with a mother — the compound of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria that ferments alcohol into vinegar — that Brother Victor had brought from his family home in France decades earlier. “Each bottle traces its roots back to his own heritage,” she says. “It’s mind-blowing.”

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It was around this same time that Baltimore filmmaker Alex Levy, then a senior at Vassar College, began filming “An Instrument of Peace,” a documentary about Brother Victor and his life at the monastery. Brother Victor had hosted student interns from Vassar for several years; when Levy began visiting the monastery to help weed the gardens and do odd jobs, he was intrigued. “It was a setting that felt like it was outside of time,” he recalls. “I was interested in finding out how this person went from being a lone hermit to becoming the center of a community.”

For Michael Centore, a fellow Vassar alum and friend to both Levy and Brother Victor, the opening scene of the film offers a glimpse into the monk’s ability to connect with people in meaningful ways, as it follows him picking up castoff produce from a local grocery store. “He’d use that food for his animals or to feed others, and he’d be chatting away with everyone working in the backroom of the grocery store, in different languages depending on where they were from,” says Centore. “I think those are the times that I remember him at his happiest.”

What no one expected was that in 2014, a vigorously healthy Brother Victor would suddenly suffer a debilitating stroke. It was just two weeks after a successful vinegar festival, when Shershin remembers thinking, “We could be doing this festival for years, Brother Victor is in such great shape.” The narrative of Levy’s film suddenly changed from documenting a thriving self-made ecosystem to a struggling enterprise. “I didn’t want to make that story,” says Levy. “It was very hard to see someone knocked off their game.”

It’s now been nearly two years since Brother Victor took up residence at a nursing home in nearby Rhinebeck, after a slow recovery from the stroke made it difficult for him to continue living in the monastery, even with full-time help. Patchey and other friends and neighbors keep watch over the monastery itself, although Brother Victor’s adored sheep, chickens and other animals had to be rehomed to live out their lives at nearby sanctuaries and farms.

On a recent visit to the monastery, now closed to the public, the afternoon sun slanted through the kitchen windows, sending long shadows across the floorboards and illuminating dusty shelves stacked with books, jars of preserves and random bits of crockery. Patchey looked over at the table by the window. “We used to sit right there, with the dog curled up at our feet and the cats prowling around on top, with bowls of soup made with vegetables that had just come from the garden, hunks of day-old bread and glasses of wine,” he said.

Now, Patchey plays the lottery twice a week, hoping for a payout that will help bring the monastery and its beloved gardens, sanctuary and kitchen back to their full glory. Brother Victor, on the other hand, holds on to his belief that an active life can resume again at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery — the sharp scent of fermenting vinegar, warm steam escaping from soup bubbling on the stove, the cadence of prayers being chanted in the stillness of the chapel.

“When you have faith,” he says, “miracles still happen.”

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