Growing up on a dairy fair provided rich soil for cultivating the Catholic faith in Sister Evelyn Brokish, 79, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Wisconsin. She was the fifth-born of 16 kids – nine girls, seven boys – and the stories she shares about her lush rural childhood outside Dodgeville, Wis., are vivid. Bailing hay and filling the silo. Tending the chickens and pigs. A bustling 6-bedroom farmhouse, two kids per bed. Bouncing around in Dad’s old black Chevy sans seatbelts.
“We had a lot of fun, I tell you, because we did everything together,” Sister Evelyn said. “We sang all the time. I sang milking the cows, and the cows might be ticked if I hit a high note. We sang as a family, every Sunday night. My mother played the piano. We sang every song in the Twice 55 songbook [a folk songbook], and we always ended with Tantum Ergo. That’s how we knew it was time to go to bed.”
Farming naturally fostered her faith, she said. “I understood and I experienced what it meant to trust in God because every day we looked to God for everything. We prayed for rain. We prayed for a good harvest. We prayed for safety. We blessed the fields. My mother would lead a prayer on rogation days; she sprinkled holy water in every field and do an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. And then above all we thanked God for the harvest.”
Learning to bake was an essential element of farm life, and Sister Evelyn’s mother, Lorena, started the kids early. At age 6, each child would bake her first cake from scratch, while Lorena patiently dictated the recipe – one step at a time. “It wasn’t long before each of us had those recipes memorized too,” Sister Evelyn said.
By age 10, each child learned to make pie crust. Shortly later they were baking bread. By 13, Evelyn could prepare an entire meal. “Most of the recipes were memorized,” Sister Evelyn said. “My mother was a good teacher. It was very affirming: This is what I can do!”
That confidence in the kitchen proved vital decades later when, as a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, Sister Evelyn opened her own chocolate shop. It is an experience she shared with Katy Schreiner, the college student who recorded a SisterStory oral history of Sister Evelyn. “Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Sister Evelyn is her entrepreneurial past,” Katy wrote in a blog post. “For about eight years, she actually had her own chocolate shop. I found this to be really cool because it is not the traditional thing I would have ever pictured a sister to do.”
Sister Evelyn entered the convent at age 19 and advanced her education through religious life. Over the years went on to hold various leadership roles in music and liturgy – at the parish level, diocesan level and for secular organizations.
Then one day she read an article asserting that every religious congregation should be present in the marketplace to make itself known. The idea stuck with Sister Evelyn, and soon she was planning a chocolate shop, which she opened in 2006 with the help of a basic website, word of mouth and curiosity. The store was located in Highland, Ind., and called Poverello Delights, a nod to St. Francis, who was nicknamed the poverello, or little poor person.
At age 69, Sister Evelyn was embarking on a new venture. “I had spent 47 years being director of music and liturgy, and I knew that I had talents that would not be developed,” she told the Northwest Indiana Times. “Why stay on one thing for your entire life? I felt it was time to turn the page, so to speak.”
Sister Evelyn set to making the best chocolates she could: truffles, turtles, caramel-filled treats. She made a party collection with liquors, an herbal tea collection, a spice-rack collection and a fruit-and-nut collection. “I experimented,” she recalled. “That was my training from home. We made our own recipes – all sorts of things from scratch.”
The learning curve was steep. “The real secret is you have to know where to find good chocolate,” she said. “And then you have to know how to temper it, how to handle it well.”
People came from far and wide to taste her chocolates, and Sister Evelyn began to understand the article she had read in a new way. “I learned how important it is to be in the marketplace. It is the place of evangelization. It’s where you meet people on their turf – people of all ages, races, nationalities and faith orientations. It was a really joyous experience.”
The nun who had served others in so many other capacities now found herself caring for the human race by creating confections that delight the eye and the stomach.
“I prayed that every person who entered the store would feel the presence of God – and believe me, they did. I had one fellow come in and say, ‘I don’t know why I came this way. I’ve never come this way. I’m on my way to see my mother in Ohio. And we had a conversation and I could tell he was deeply touched. And then I had a lady come in and say, ‘Oh my goodness! From the moment I stepped in this store, I knew I had to get back to the church, and I’m going to do it right away.’ You never know!”
Last year health problems forced Sister Evelyn to close the beloved shop. But her fond memories and gratitude for the experience remain. She draws a parallel between baking and spirituality. “In baking, it times time for the product to evolve. After some time, there might be a little evolution. And take Catholicism – it’s the very same thing. We learn something, and we don’t comprehend, we don’t know what it’s all about. It takes time to grasp. You look at the meaning and the teachings, and with time we understand a little bit more. We get a little deeper. We experience an evolution, and our faith will change as it deepens.”