Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Heading for the Hills: Nuns on the Run

In the last week or so, you may have stumbled upon an article - generally entitled "Nuns on the Run" (irresistible, no?) - about a convent full of Greek Orthodox nuns who started a knitting business that failed - but not until they'd racked up a significant amount of debt (600,000 Euros, which translates roughly into a million bucks). When their creditors came knocking at the convent door, the nuns apparently fled to another convent, heading for the hills in central Greece.

Well, easy to make fun, but who can blame them? I can honestly say that there were plenty of times in my career when I would have loved to taken myself and my colleagues and fled our foundering organizations en masse. (I remember one fellow-sufferer in a particularly quirky company in my past saying, during an especially rough - irrational, chaotic - patch, that he fantasized about every single one of us giving our notice on the same day.) 

Back to the nun story: Like convents everywhere, I'm sure that the Greek nuns were looking for a way to sustain their way of life. Maybe things are different in Greece, but if religious orders there are experiencing anywhere near the strains they are in the U.S., they're facing a situation in which a lot fewer younger nuns are supporting a lot more older ones.  So staying in business means getting smart about business. It means volume. It means scale.

Somewhere along the line, the good sisters had set up a business supplying knit goods to shops. Their business involved investing in some pretty pricey equipment. Not surprising, given the lure of automation. Sure, the finished goods may not have been quite so nice and interesting as hand-crafted wares, but you sure could churn out a whole lot more. 

But, as often happens, the business just ran away on them, prompting the nuns to run away on it.

This whole story reminded me of the "business" run by the nuns at my grammar school. They produced hand-made Valentines and sold them to the school kids - all proceeds went to the missions, I believe. The Valentines were nothing that you would ever give to a friend or classmate. Rather than the punning little Valentines we gave out - the needle says to the spool of thread: I'm SEW glad I know you, etc. - the ones the nuns made were both clunky and religious, a double whammy. The typical ones were pieces of construction paper cut in the shape of a heart with a holy card (i.e., a two-by-four inch picture of a saint) glued to the middle, or construction paper hearts with doilies and angel stickers pasted on them.

All of us, of course, bought a few - at least if we knew what was good for us - and gave them to our parents and grandparents. I'm sure that a few suck-ups even gave them to the nuns themselves. I hope that I wasn't one of them. If I were, I have blessedly managed to repress the memory. 

Our nuns did make some Valentines that I really did crave. I would have liked to give one to my mother, but, at 50 cents or a dollar, they were way out of my league. These cards used the covers of fancy, heart shaped candy boxes - the kinds with the crimped fabric, gilt edged ribbons, and paper roses. I wasn't the only one who wanted one. In first grade, I remember Stephen Walsh - like me, one of the "December babies" in the class - crying because he couldn't afford on for his mother. Sister Marie Leo, more usually an afflicter than a comforter, took him onto her lap and rocked Stephen to console him. She should have just slipped him the damned Valentine on the QT, although she might have feared unleashing a riot among the other December babies.

Back to the main topic...A BBC account of the nun's on the run (by Malcolm Brabant) added one nifty little detail to the story:

According to the Kathimerini newspaper, they exacerbated their financial problems by going abroad to fashion shows to check out the latest designs in woollen garments.

I'm having a hard - but very fun - time picturing a group of black clad nuns at Fashion Week in New York, Milan, or Paris. What a fashion statement they must have made. No doubt, some designer or another will pick up on it and next spring we'll see some spare, clean, all-black lines gamboling down the runway. (I believe that Greek nuns, for the most part, still wear old fashioned garb, rather than the mufti that many American nuns adopted in the 1960's and 1970's.) 

As I wrote, I have plenty of sympathy for a group of nuns with, I'm guessing, quite limited business and manufacturing experience and training, setting up a business. I don't know what the statistic is, but most start-ups fail. Why would we expect anything different from this one?

I hope the nuns-on-the-run come out of hiding. I hope that the Greek Orthodox Church can square this away for them, and that the nuns don't lose their convent. (Selling it off is one possibility for settlement of their debts.)  I hope they come back and pick-up-their knitting needles and this time stick to their knitting and avoid the mammon temptations of bigger business. 


In addition to the BBC article, an article in a Sydney newspaper was a source for information contained in this post.

No comments: