The smell of freshly baked bread is one of the most iconic scents of the holidays, immediately bringing to mind thoughts of prosperity and goodwill.
Few people are more familiar with its uplifting aroma than Bert Provorse and Walter Montague, who became bakers by chance through a unique partnership between the area’s largest not-for-profit supporting individuals with developmental disabilities and a neighboring community of Roman Catholic monks.
“If you were to ask me as a kid if I thought that I would grow up to become a baker, I probably would have called you crazy,” says Bert, a graduate of Keshequa schools who lives in Nunda with family. “But look at me now.”
“The best part of the job is the people,” adds Walter, who lives independently in Caledonia. “We get along with everybody, and although it does kick our butt, the job is a lot of fun.”
Two days each week, Bert and Walter work in the bread factory at the Abbey of the Genesee, a community of contemplative monks known as Trappists, who dedicate themselves to the worship of God in a hidden life within the monastery.
Making bread has been part of life at the Abbey since the early 1950s, when one of the Brothers began baking a wholesome, old fashioned loaf of bread for the community and a few guests. Before long, guests and visitors were asking to purchase this unique loaf; by 1956 things had progressed to where a large modern bakery was set in operation.
The Abbey is located in Piffard, 11 miles north of the home base for Bert and Walter’s work program: Hilltop Business Services in Mount Morris. Hilltop is the vocational program of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming. Each year, nearly 300 people with disabilities secure gainful employment through Hilltop, either at work centers or at local employers like the Abbey that partner with Hilltop for on-site work.
Representatives from Hilltop and the Abbey connected at a local job fair about a year and a half ago. Soon thereafter, Bert and Walter began their baking careers, supported by Hilltop Vocational Assistant Alicia Staie, who drives them to the worksite and supports them on the job as needed. At the Abbey, Wednesdays are bake days, and Thursdays are spent cleaning, including thoroughly scraping and sweeping floors of any stray ingredients.
“Cleaning days can be pretty intense,” Alicia says. “You would not believe the places that you’ll find a raisin in this bakery.”
But it’s on bake day when Bert and Walter’s talents truly shine. From 9:00 until 3:00, they each play an integral role in a large scale baking process that produces 20,000 loaves daily, and requires 15 workers to operate.
By the time they arrive at work, the baking process has already begun. Bake day is a 12-hour endeavor that starts at 4:00am, when Fr. Steve initiates the first batch in a 1,200 pound capacity mixer. The brothers orient their day around a regimented prayer schedule, working in the bakery in shifts alongside their paid employees.
After 10-12 minutes in the mixer, dough is fed into a divider, a molder, and then a metal “strap pan” that holds five loaves. It’s Walter’s job to move the strap pans from the assembly line to a large mobile rack that, once fully loaded, is rolled into the controlled environment of a “proof box” that helps the dough to rise at optimum speed. When the dough is just the right height, it’s ready for the oven, and then the giant cooling tower.
Walter describes the job as tailored for him; he’s always been good at lifting. Similarly, Bert’s job plays to his strengths.
After the loaves are sliced, they are bagged at the rate of more than 40 loaves per minute using the power of air to inflate the bags. The bags are tagged, and then Bert assumes the dual role of packer and inspector just prior to the finished loaves’ journey to grocery store shelves.
“I’ve got the eyes of a hawk,” he says. And his employers agree.
“Walter and Bert are great employees,” says Paul Kennedy, Assistant Manager of the Abbey’s bakery employees. “We have employed many people here. Bringing them in was a change for the better. They’re a lot of fun to work with, and they really want to be here.”
True to the spirit of the holidays, Bert and Walter have developed a friendship through the shared experience of baking fresh bread together. Many dozens of times, they’ve broken that bread over chats in the Hilltop break room and at the Abbey. And while Walter is an introvert and Bert is more outgoing, they’ve learned that they have a lot in common, including a shared video game obsession.
You could think of it as an extended holiday feast, but without unwanted side effects like weight-gain. After all, Bert and Walter are working – not loafing around.
“I lift a couple thousand ten pound pans every Wednesday,” Walter says. “When I started at the Abbey, I was 250 pounds, now I’m at 200.”