WORCESTER, Mass. — A few years ago, members of the Teresian Carmelites monastery had nearly run out of ways to raise money for their charitable work.
Hopes of getting permission from Trappist monks in Belgium to produce the Trappists' beer in central Massachusetts were on hold. Another idea to erect windmills to generate and sell power had stalled.
Donations were the only income that kept the operation running on bare bones, but they weren't enough to fund the members' mission of helping poor people in the region.
Their future was so bleak that last summer, the Worcester Diocese withdrew official Roman Catholic recognition of the community, saying it was too small to sustain itself and showed little potential to grow.
For a group whose members pray up to six hours daily, the worries prompted a lot of extra supplication.
That's when one of what Brother Dennis Wyrzykowski calls "God-incidences" connected them with a local scientist, whose work included patented research into a compound in the human heart that has been found to also fight wrinkles.
With the scientist's blessing, the religious community recently started selling a high-end skin cream online based on the compound.
Its three consecrated members and approximately 30 lay members hope it's the answer to their prayers — not just to keep the community afloat financially, but to prove its viability to the diocese and fund programs for homeless and disadvantaged people throughout the region.
"My first thought was, 'What are people going to think about nuns and monks making cream for your face?'" Sister Nancy Connors said. "But it's a good product, I use it every day and I believe it will help people."
The $65-per-tube face cream, called Easeamine, is a far cry from the more traditional offerings that some monasteries sell, such as homemade jam and cheeses.
After the Carmelites pay off their launch costs, the profits will be used for grants to Worcester-area agencies serving poor and homeless people, and to support the tiny religious community — which has existed on donations since it was founded in 1971.
"I did worry initially about offering a so-called beauty product, but monks and nuns have always had a long tradition of making health care products and food products," said Brother Solomon Balban, one of two consecrated monks in the independent religious community who live at the monastery in the Worcester suburb of Millbury.
A Massachusetts company produced the first 800 tubes and, once those are sold, an out-of-state producer of cosmetic products will take over production.
The startup costs, which the monks did not disclose, came from investments and donations of money and in-kind work from supporters of the religious community. It needs to sell about 32,000 tubes to break even, Brother Dennis said.
"Right now, it's all been word of mouth. We don't have the revenue to do anything more than that in terms of advertising," he said.
Easeamine, and the Carmelites' path toward selling it, started in an unlikely place: a lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Dr. James Dobson Jr. has spent years studying a biological substance known as adenosine.
While researching how the heart ages, Dobson and colleague Michael Ethier discovered several years ago that adenosine — a natural substance that's plentiful in older hearts — triggers the skin's dermis to produce more elastin and collagen. Though that discovery was irrelevant in their cardiovascular studies, they recognized its potential value in skin care products and patented the technology.
Dobson's wife, Susan, was the link between the monastery and the moisturizer. She first met Brother Dennis when she contacted his monastery's prayer line, leading to a close friendship between its members and the Dobsons.
"It was important to us that we were offering something that is healthy, and I knew Jim would not allow us to go after something that wasn't," Brother Dennis said of Dobson.
The Teresian Carmelites' link to the cream is not immediately obvious on Easeamine's white plastic tube, but its Web site — currently the only way to order it — says proceeds benefit "their work serving the needs of the poor and marginalized."
Dobson describes the cream as "a skin health product that has cosmetic advantages."
Offering a healthy product is something that's often found among religious communities seeking ways to support themselves financially, said Dr. David Hackett, a religion professor at the University of Florida.
He said that's the case even when the offering is a high-end product — such as a fancy face cream or specialty jam — meant to appeal to people with more disposable income than the average person.
"I think the motivation is not necessarily to cater to the wealthy, but to meet a niche and cater to those who will pay the money — always with the understanding being that you're simply trying to support a religious vocation, and that remains the most important thing," Hackett said.
Religious communities throughout the world have dipped into several markets to raise money. Some make cheeses, beer and other products.
Others are a bit more modern, such as the "LaserMonks," a business venture founded in 2002 by Wisconsin-based Cistercian monks who raise millions yearly with offerings ranging from inkjet cartridges to office and classroom supplies.
Brother Dennis and the other Teresian Carmelites say they recognize the potential disadvantage of trying to sell high-end face cream in the tight economy. But some studies suggest their potential buyers haven't closed their wallets on luxury personal care products.
The Freedonia Group Inc., a Cleveland-based market research company, recently reported that the aging of baby boomers is likely to boost the market for cosmeceutical products — cosmetics with medicine-based ingredients — by more than 7 percent in the next four years. Skin care products, particularly those viewed as defying the telltale signs of aging such as wrinkles and sagging, are expected to drive the growth.
The monks envision Easeamine profits eventually helping set up housing for homeless people, classes to help poor youths catch up in school and myriad other offerings to benefit disadvantaged people in central Massachusetts.
"We have a lot of hopes and dreams to help a lot of people by ending the cycle of poverty, and that begins with food, clothing and housing," Brother Dennis said. "There are men and women who want to take care of their skin and may want this cream, and there are people in need, and perhaps money from this will bring them together."