Candle Making at the Monastery of Saint John

By Angie Nasrallah

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What’s warm, secreted by a gland near the stomach, smells ambrosial, and can be molded into most any shape?  Well, it’d have to be bee’s wax!  On a recent visit to The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, we discovered the age-old art of candle making.  Elliot, who’s been working in their big metal building for several months, schooled us on the entire process, from bee hive to candle.  After the tour, he invited us to join him in making a few boxes of golden tapers.

Bees’s wax, that pliable bi-product of the honey bee, is harvested right from the monastery property.  St. John’s uses the wax from their 40 + hives plus other local hives to make candles, which they sell to churches around the country.  They also sell honey and soap, along with books and icons in their on-site bookstore.  These products, in part, support the men who pray and serve here at the monastery.

When we saw the big metal building, we tried the door knob and it was stuck.  So, I called in my confident mom voice, “Anybody home?”  That’s when Elliot called back, “Come on in.  The door’s unlocked.”  We turned the handled a little harder and gave the door a good shove which suddenly opened into a warehouse space, slightly cooled by an overworked air conditioner.  We didn’t complain as it was 99 degrees outside.

Upon entering, we saw wooden hive boxes, a vat of molten wax and bags of bee food.  Elliot was dipping symmetrical wicks into a hot liquid.  We had arrived at the candle making shop.  Immediately, Elliot introduced himself and upon asking, showed us the complete process.  We talked about the hives and how the monastery has a symbiotic relationship with the honey bees.  He showed us the honey comb and invited a taste of the gooey nectar.  He gestured over to the spool of wicks and the wooden structures used to dip wax in candle shapes.  He described the various shapes and sizes of candles made here.

Of course, Gabe asked what everyone wanted to ask, “Can I try?”  At that, Elliot said, “Grab a frame and I’ll show you how to dip.”

So, there was dipping and more dipping.  Narrow tapers are dipped 3 times, and thicker candles are dipped as many as 6 times. Then, we learned how to cut the tapers free from the frame, how to restring the frames and how to pour molten wax into molds to create votives and pillars.  I think we made at least 2 or 3 boxes of candles that day.

We all had so much fun dipping, cutting, restringing and pouring. I just kept snapping pictures.

At some point, a big kid said “Let’s eat,” and we cleared out and joined the monks for lunch.  Three hours had passed in that metal building.

As we left the next morning, Gabe showed me a small pack of candles that Elliot gave him as a thank you for all his hard work.  “I can’t wait to burn these at home,” Gabe told me as he wrapped and packed them carefully into his suitcase. “They will remind me of our time here.”

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