A deep love for God and a passion for the art of brewing beer melded into a unique spiritual journey for Benedictine Brother Augustine Wilmeth.
He was born Philip Wilmeth and became a Catholic in his junior year at St. Joseph’s School in Greenville.
Today, at age 28, he is the brewmaster for a community of beer-making monks who live in an ancient monastery in Italy.
Many who knew him back in high school might not recognize him today. He cuts a dramatic figure with a cleanly shaved head, scholarly glasses and a full red beard. Although he is cloistered, his photos can be seen on the order’s web page.
Wilmeth, who originally hails from Anderson, belongs to the Monks of Norcia, a community founded in 1998 by Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom.
The monks are based in the city of Norcia, the historic birthplace of St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica. Father Folsom wanted to revive the Benedictine monastic tradition in the city, where no monks had served since 1810. The community, which has monks from around the world, is young and vibrant, with an average age of 36.
The men live according to the Benedictine rule, combining “ora and labora,” prayer and work.
That’s where the beer comes in.
At a brewery not far from their monastery, the monks produce two Belgian-style beers, a light “Blonde” and a dark, rich brew called the “Extra.” As brewmaster, Brother Augustine makes sure the beer is up to par in taste and quality.
He said he first became interested in the pastime through home-brewing with his late father, Philip, before he left for Thomas Aquinas College in California.
His love for creating tasty ales made his choice to become a Benedictine monk doubly appropriate, he said, because beer making is an ancient tradition in many monastic communities.
Brother Augustine said he became interested in the Benedictine rule and liturgy during college, when he was a member of a schola cantorum group that performed Gregorian chant. Immersing himself in the ancient music of the Church and consecrating himself to Mary his freshman year helped guide him in discernment, he said.
“That was part of my call to the Benedictines,” he said. “I really feel that it wasn’t so much me choosing the order as me being chosen by God for the vocation.”
He visited the Norcia Benedictines for a summer discernment program shortly after graduation, and by the end of it his decision was made.
He would head to Italy for a life of prayer — and beer-making.
He professed his simple vows with the order in the fall of 2015 and took his final vows of stability in 2018.
It took time to acclimate to the strict Benedictine rule that the men follow, rising at 3:30 a.m., prayer at 4 a.m., and then a day of work and study that ends with evening prayers at 8 p.m. There is only about 30 minutes of recreation each day, which mainly includes conversation with fellow monks. Time for communication with the outside world is limited. He talks to his mother, Anne, back home about once a month and can use email.
He also still performs his beloved Gregorian chant with his fellow monks, and their chanting was even featured on a CD that was a bestseller on Amazon.
Brother Augustine didn’t immediately start out working in the Norcia brewery. Like all new monks, he said, “You start cleaning the floor and polishing candlesticks.”
His superiors moved him over to the brewery fairly quickly, however, after they discovered he had experience. He said he started out with menial jobs such as bottling and packaging and moved up to eventually become the brewmaster.
“It takes about two months from start to finish for a batch of beer to be ready, so there is a lot of waiting involved, but then there is also a lot of work involved in bottling, labeling and taking orders,” he said. “You have to sample the beer and do a taste analysis and label analysis to make sure there is no bacteria that could affect the taste.”
The monks’ beer is currently sold in parts of Europe, Taiwan and by mail in the United States. The business is still recovering from an earthquake that devastated Norcia in 2016. The men currently live in a temporary wooden monastery and use borrowed space at a local brewery.
Brother Augustine has also added another level to his journey with God by discerning a call to the priesthood. In June, he was ordained to the subdiaconate at a joyful ceremony.
“As a priest, I will be able to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and perform all the sacramental ministries for the others in the community,” he said. “As a monk who becomes a priest, you are a service to the other brothers, and you offer silent, hidden intercession through the prayer of the Mass.”
Family members flew over to celebrate with him. His mother was there, just as she had been when he first professed his vows. She describes how joyful it has been to witness the spiritual milestones in his life and the special bond they share as converts. She entered the church alongside her two sons in 2009 and is now a member of St. Mary Church in Greenville.
“Like any mother, it was hard for me to see him go away to college and then to go so far away overseas, but it has been wonderful to see what he is doing now,” Mrs. Wilmeth said. “I’m so happy that he found such a precious vocation, and his fellow monks are wonderful as well. I feel like they are my family.”
To learn more about the Monks of Norcia, visit https://en.nursia.org/.
To read about the Norcia beer and how it is made, visit https://birranursia.com/.