Heart Warming

The Herald | Heart Warming

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Story by Allen Laman

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan

On a ducked-off corner of the rambling St. Meinrad Archabbey grounds, Eston Blair hoists an axe over his shoulder and slams it on a piece of wood, slicing it in half, the pieces sent flying off the stump he’s using as a workbench.

Country music blares into the cold November air from a nearby speaker. In between grunts and heaves, the 15 or so wood-chopping volunteers tell stories and crack jokes. Soon, the guys will drop their blades and congregate around a bonfire to roast hot dogs.

But the men aren’t just there for fun. They’re there to warm hearts.

Cooperative Action for Community Development Project Warm has brought together priests in training and other volunteers at the St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology for a heartwarming cause for nearly six decades.

They aren’t lumberjacks. Some of them hadn’t even swung an axe before stepping foot in the lumberyard. But inside that muddy lot, men gather to tap into their masculinity, grow closer to God and help their community through the coldest times of the year.

On that plot of land that sits far away from the towering Archabbey Church, they stack lumber from nearby tracts of trees to help area families heat their homes.

St. Meinrad seminarian Charlie Wessel uses a maul to split a log in the wood lot of St. Meinrad Archabbey on Nov. 15. About five times a semester, 15 to 20 seminarians volunteer their time to chop wood.

“People need to have warmth and be able to cook their food, and it’s very important,” said Ben Riley, a Project Warm manager. “And you’d be surprised how many people in this area do heat their homes with wood burning stoves. A lot of them are either out of work, or too old to work, or have health problems, or whatever it might be. And this is the only means that they have. Us giving them this firewood to heat their homes and potentially heat their food.”

The nonprofit operation functions like a well-oiled machine and consists of several moving parts. On archabbey grounds, a collections team cuts down the trees with chainsaws and also picks up trees that have already fallen. A woodlot group then coordinates and spreads word of the chopping events to the St. Meinrad community, and after aging the firewood, the fuel is distributed by a delivery team to residents who heat their homes and cook their food with wood burning stoves.

According to the Benedictine monastery’s website, Project Warm delivers firewood within a 20-mile radius of St. Meinrad, and will deliver up to eight loads to one location during the season. For households beyond this radius, special arrangements may be made to pick up firewood.

The organization’s goal is to provide choice firewood for those in need at below-fair-market price — or about $85 for a delivery of a big truckload of wood. This year, the group has chopped about 5,100 pieces of wood.

“The muscle of the program is the volunteer work,” said Joe Friend, one of Project Warm’s seminarian leaders. While he, Ben Riley and Garrett Braun manage and oversee various aspects of the group’s operations, it’s those who donate their time to chopping the wood that make the nonprofit’s goals achievable.

Most of those volunteers are seminarians, like Blair. Some grew up on farms and have chopped for years. Others are rookies and still haven’t nailed down the technique. St. Meinrad monks also lend their hands, as do friends of the seminarians. Project Warm has even brought in college students from Purdue University and the University of Southern Indiana, as well as high-schoolers from Louisville to maximize their efforts.

While benefiting the needy is unquestionably their top priority, the activity does spark other positive side effects, too. It’s one of the few times seminarians and monks engage in organized physical activity, and through their work, they can feel themselves growing closer to each other. They also feel themselves growing closer to God.

“We see our physical work as kind of like prayer in action,” Friend explained.

St. Meinrad seminarian Conrad Jaconette, left, and Craig Wilmes of Evansville, right, watch as St. Meinrad seminarian Caleb Scherzinger catches a piece of firewood in the wood lot of St. Meinrad Archabbey on Nov. 2. "The wood lot is a bonding experience," said Project Warm manager Joe Friend. "I like our culture."

He said that after a week of learning and contemplating theology at a desk in a classroom, it’s good to see the tangible fruits of the volunteers’ efforts on the weekend. The lumberyard opens for chopping about 10 times a year.

Braun noted that the physical nature of the group’s work shows how their relationship to God isn’t purely mental.

“Chopping wood, stacking it, picking it up, putting it in a truck and delivering it to a family and [seeing] the joy they have and the gratitude they have when you’re able to help them out with something — it offers a piece that really we miss sometimes in school,” Friend said.

Added Riley: “It’s easy to get caught up on the intellectual, and this is very practical.”

Highlighting the idea that the work is a physical form of ministry — and not just dudes swinging axes — is important to Riley. He’s carved out a sort of figurative representation to demonstrate just how effective Project Warm is when it comes to spreading warmth.

Per loose estimates, a single piece of wood can heat 10 bowls of soup. Given the above total of lumber that has been chopped by the seminarian initiative, Riley estimates the group has diced up enough wood to heat 55,250 bowls. Project Warm has delivered its product to 15 families in 2019.

Seminarians and volunteers watch as seminarian and Project Warm manager Ben Riley fells a tree at the St. Meinrad Archabbey grounds on Nov. 2. All of the trees they fell come from somewhere on the 250-acre grounds of the Archabbey. "As part of the care for the forest and care for the world that God gave us, we go and clear trees that are dying or have already fallen over," Riley said.

One of them lives in Jasper. Struggling under the weight of medical bills for various surgeries and procedures, the timber from Project Warm allows the husband and wife to use a wood burning stove that keeps their utility bill low in the winter. If they had to use only their furnace, “we’d have $500 electric bills,” said the husband. “So, it saves that much.”

Community participation has waned in recent years, and the managers hope this story will lead more people to Project Warm. The organization would like to work with 15 to 20 families each winter season.

“We think that’s something we can rebuild,” Braun said of their customer base. “Because we know there’s people in the area that need it. So if they know, then we can help them.”

St. Meinrad owns much of the forest that surrounds its Spencer County campus, and Riley said Project Warm cares for the forest by responsibly clearing trees that are dying or have already fallen over, as well as the underbrush. This mitigates the danger of forest fires and other potential issues.

When it comes to the chopping aspect of the initiative — the part in which volunteers are most involved — participants’ motivation tends to evolve with the understanding of their work. The pull for many is that it’s a chance to blow off steam outdoors. But as they keep coming back, they develop an appreciation for the bigger picture of the work.

St. Meinrad seminarian Eli Yandow stacks firewood onto the stockpile in the wood lot of St. Meinrad Archabbey on Nov. 15. The firewood is organized by date allowing it to age for a year before being delivered to families. The seminary hopes to start serving 15-20 families each winter.

“It’s awesome when we have a ministry like this that has such an incredible purpose, but also that’s so fun,” Friend said. “I mean, to get a group of guys together and swing mauls around, that’s a pretty good Saturday morning.”

In addition to being a fun workout and positive fraternal experience, Blair said the chop events remind him of the importance of helping others in small ways. While splitting wood might seem menial to some, the love the team extends is powerful.

“When you extend love, then you’re extending God, who is love,” Blair said.

Riley explained that because the program is a ministry, even if a family can’t afford the full price of the wood, the Project Warm team will still deliver it to them. Things happen, and they understand.

Those interested in ordering firewood from Project Warm can do so by calling the archabbey switchboard at 812-357-6611. Households need to contact their local energy assistance office to validate their eligibility for an energy assistance voucher.

“I think the biggest thing for us is, please call if you’re in need,” Friend said. “And then we’ll do our best to do what we can.”

Project Warm manager Garrett Braun, center, leads the group in prayer before enjoying a bonfire after an evening of chopping firewood in the wood lot of St. Meinrad Archabbey on Nov. 15. "In a lot of ways this is a chance to get outside and do something physical at the end of a long week," Braun said. "We try to emphasize the prayer that we're doing and the people that we're serving and I think in some ways your motivation kind of changes. You appreciate the bigger picture of what we're really doing."

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