When demand for their fruitcake grew tenfold, the Trappists of Holy Cross Abbey had to seek guidance. But not from God
As the sun begins to rise high above the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Shenandoah River winds its way through the sleepy Virginian countryside, a community of Cistercian monks has already been at work and prayer for several hours.

Set in 1,200 acres of farmland known as the Cool Spring Plantation, Holy Cross Abbey is home to 26 Cistercian (Trappist) monks. But rather than work the land to fulfil their commitment to self-sufficiency, these monks have traded in their solitude for the Superhighway.

"It all started in 1990 when we were given a complicated computer system by one of our benefactors,"Brother Benedict Simmonds explains.

"Our primary source of income was selling home-made fruitcakes, and while business was booming, we were overwhelmed with orders and saw the computer as the only way to lighten the load."

For more than a decade the monks have been producing their award-winning cakes as a means of sustaining the abbey. But by 1990, orders had risen from a modest 1,500 a year to a staggering 15,000, after they accepted advice to distribute them by mail order all over the United States, Brother Benedict said.

"The seasonal deluge of telephone orders was so great it started interfering with the monastic lifestyle, and it was at this point we decided we needed help.

"But while we realised things could probably be made a lot easier if orders were entered straight on to the computer system, no one knew how to instigate this so we decided to seek guidance."

But rather than hoping God would answer their prayers, the monks contacted Ed Leonard, a local computer specialist.

Their prayers were answered. "At the time I was working as an accounts executive for Everex Computers and was responsible for the pounds 130m contract for computerising the United States court system. But despite earning a substantial salary, and being married to a beautiful wife, I wanted something more fulfilling out of life," he said.

"It had taken me a long time to establish myself, but I was doing nothing to help humanity. So when Brother Benedict offered me the opportunity to 'find myself' while at the same time help the monastic community, I decided it was definitely for me," he said.

The deal came in the form of a six-month "agreement" in which Mr Leonard was required to fully computerise and streamline the mail-order business in return for a minimal wage.

Despite getting the system up and running smoothly within the allocated six months, he realised the computer still wasn't being used to its full capacity, and so decided to ask Abbot Flavian Burns if he minded him looking for additional projects for the monks to work on. The repsonse was phenomenal.

"There was something about the concept of hiring monks which appealed to the majority of clients I approached, and the initial response was so great I ended up having to employ extra help while the monks found their feet," he said.

"Monks have long been regarded as intelligent, well-educated and dedicated people who are completely focused on the task ahead of them, and who aren't plagued by everyday distractions like TV and radio.

"They also take their work very seriously - regarding it as 'holy'; and for centuries they have been the keepers of knowledge and tradition. This particularly appealed to academic establishments and libraries.

The demand for the monks' services became so great that it soon became necessary to expand the work force. So after securing the first contracts, Ed set about enlisting the help of other monasteries.

"Within months, in addition to the 20 staff members in the central office, we had more than 50 monastic workers from as far afield as Wisconsin, New Mexico and San Francisco," he said.

With the clients ranging from the New York Daily News, whose picture library is currently being catalogued by the monks at Holy Cross, to Yale University and publishing giants Conde Nast, the reputation of Electronic Scriptorium, as the business is known, is flying high.

The monks work through Ed, benefiting from a steady source of work while keeping clients - mostly libraries, schools, universities and some law firms - at a distance. Communities can tailor the workload to their specific needs, keeping the spiritual and practical balance essential to monastic discipline. The fee is based on a per-piece rate that allows the worker to earn an average of $10 an hour. As each monk lives under a vow of poverty, naturally everything is ploughed back into the monastery. But with revenue approaching $1m, the US is only the tip of the iceberg.

"We are already in contact with an urban monastery in Chicago whose mother house is in Paris, and I have also had interest from Andover in Hampshire and London, so we are hoping to set up a similar network across Europe," explained Ed.

And back in sleepy Berryville, Virginia? "Having mastered the Novell Network, it was an easy step to the Internet," says Brother Benedict: "Holy Cross Abbey now has a homepage."

The World Wide Web provides a description of the Monastery Fruitcake and e-mail access for easy ordering. In text and pictures the homepage tells of life at the abbey, and offers a weekly selection from the writings of the Cistercian Fathers.

"The unique concept has produced a wonderful combination of the very latest technology and the monastic tradition. But nevertheless, we only have three monks working on the Daily News contract," said Brother Benedict, who before joining the monsatery in 1983 worked as a New York librarian for 20 years.

"The other 23 are still involved with the baking, packaging and distribution of our fruitcakes to customers as far afield as Nepal, Malaysia, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. It takes an awful lot of time and effort to produce 25,000 of them you know - Internet or no Internet."