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Cheese, Women, and the Church

I am so excited for how much good food I will get to eat this week. There is a large variety of foods at a Thanksgiving feast, but there is a surprising lack of cheese in the typical lineup. I love cheese. It is possibly my favorite food group. I can put it on most anything, but half the time I just eat it by itself. There are so many different kinds! Gouda, Muenster, Cheddar, Havarti, Swiss, the list goes on and on.

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Something I often forget about when I am stuffing my face with this dairy goodness is that there is a lot of science that goes into making cheese. There are different animals that produce milk, different cheeses have different pH’s, and of course there are different bacteria used to ferment the sugars. There are a lot of cheese purists who don’t care for the details of the science, but there is one nun who has devoted her life to it.

That’s right, I said nun. Mother Noella Marcellino, O.S.B. is a Benedictine nun who has spent the last 45 years making cheese but also learning all about it. Her community is the Abbey of

Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut. The nuns of the abbey are self-sustaining, working as beekeepers, cowherds, and blacksmiths. They make everything they use right there on their 360-acre farm. When Noella began she was put on milking duty. Then in 1977 she was asked to make their cheese.

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When she first started, she had no idea what she was doing and made a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes got fed to the pigs because no human would eat that spongy mess. Then by divine intervention, a Frenchwoman who learned how to make Saint-Nectaire cheese from her grandma showed up at the abbey and mentored Noella. She changed techniques, switching from a steel vat to a wooden barrel for holding the cheese and a wooden paddle with a cross-shaped hole for stirring it. It took about a year, but finally Noella was re-creating that Saint-Nectaire nearly perfectly.

Early on, Noella was one of those people who was not thinking about the microbiology of making cheese but then in 1985 an unaged cheese made with raw milk was blamed for 29 fatalities – mostly stillbirths – in Southern California. The cheese was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that is often associated with food poisoning. Due to this contamination, the FDA cracked down severely on dairies in the U.S. One of the first victims was Noella’s wooden cheese barrel. The local inspector insisted she start using a stainless-steel vat. She could’ve just done what the inspector asked, but she and her fellow nuns set out to defend the more traditional ways of making cheese with SCIENCE! Four nuns were to get doctorates in key disciplines that applied with this work: microbiology, animal science, plant science, and agronomy (the science of soil management).

Noella didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree, but now she was going to go get an advanced degree in microbiology. To add on to that pressure, she followed the law while getting her degree and since switching to the “safer” stainless-steel vats, her cheese was swelling instead of shrinking and some were exploding. She used the equipment at the university to test every step of the process and found some surprising results. The cheese from the sterile vat had thriving E. coli populations while E. coli in the old wooden barrel died off during cheese making. She came to discover that there was good bacteria growing in the wood, and it was driving off the bad bacteria.

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This small little test was good enough for her local inspector, but it wasn’t good enough for the FDA. Since then lots of other scientists have been getting in on defending raw milk cheese. Government statistics show that cheese is among the safest foods on the market, less likely to make you sick than chicken, beef, eggs, or even vegetables. Mother Noella continued her journey, getting a Fulbright Scholarship to aid in her research. Though the FDA hasn’t changed their mind, she continues to search out new information and educate others.

This woman came into the Abbey uneducated and has now gotten a doctorate in microbiology. She not only did that, but she is now recognized around the world for her knowledge of the positive effects of decay on the flavors of cheese. She does this to make better cheese but is also using her knowledge to educate cheesemakers and government agencies on cheese safety. All of this she does with her faith in the forefront of her mind. She relates her work to the Eucharist and stories of St. Benedict. This woman is probably not what comes to mind when you think of a woman in the church, but she is amazing.

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This week holds the feast day of one of my favorite female Saints, St. Catherine of Alexandria (Nov. 25). Like Mother Noella, she was passionate about her faith, but also incredibly intelligent. She was of noble birth and thus had access to good education. At around age fourteen she experienced a moving vision of Mary and the infant Jesus, and she decided to become a Christian. Around this time Emperor Maxentius began persecuting Christians, and Catherine visited him to denounce his cruelty. Maxentius chose to prove her wrong and embarrass her instead of killing her, so he summoned fifty orators and philosophers to debate her. Catherine had the power of the Holy Spirit on her side, though, and spoke eloquently in defending her faith. She was so convincing that several of her debaters converted to Christianity (and were immediately executed). Irritated that he couldn’t beat her with words, the emperor then had her tortured, imprisoned, and ultimately killed. Before her death, Catherine’s faith and beautiful words converted many people, including the emperor’s wife. Catherine was truly an inspiration for intelligence, youth, and defending your faith.

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Unfortunately rarely do we hear about the amazing impact of women in the Church. Because it is not our role to be priests, many in the world think the Church thinks less of us. John Paul II sought to change this image. In 1994 he attended a United Nations conference that set his heart on fire to speak more on the dignity of women and their role in the world. He declared the next year “The Year of the Woman”. He wrote and spoke frequently that year about the struggles women face and the dignity they possess.

The greatest of these writings was his “Letter to Women” published June 29, 1995. One of the many points he made in the letter was “What does it mean to be a woman?” The pope’s answer was simple: a woman is called to be a mother – sometimes in body, always in soul. A woman isn’t defined by her beauty or her docility. As one reporter wrote,

“… as mothers, our job is to see every person we meet as the image of God, to nourish and nurture life all around us, to encourage, affirm, heal, teach, welcome and pay attention to every person God sends our way. It’s also to challenge people, helping them become who God made them to be, but doing so gently, controlling our strength, never breaking the bruised reed. We are to love tenaciously, sacrifice joyfully, and advocate persistently for the little and the least. And we’re to do it all with an eye to heaven, trusting God’s grace to work through all our own efforts, so as to lead people to everlasting life.”

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Whether you are a nun who loves microbiology, a young girl who stands up to an emperor, a mother with 10 biological children, or anywhere in between, you have inherent dignity and the Catholic Church values you. Women are called to see the greatness of each individual soul and help them to reach that greatness. It is a big responsibility, but a very important one for all of us. This time of year can be hectic, but I’d like you to take a moment to yourself. I’d like you to say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for making you male or female. Then I invite you to pause and say a prayer asking God to help the people of the Church to see the greatness of men and women, that all of us may better live out the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, celebrating the feminine genius.