Prayerfully Popped – Corn from the Cloister

Jan. 25, 2012

It’s a far cry from the low-gluten alter wafers these nuns once made.

Now the Sisters of the Benedictine Monastery of Tucson are busy producing gourmet popcorn with fresh ingredients like cheddar cheese and chipotle or sea salt and caramel. They’re shipping tasty, tangy popcorn all over the United States.

A year ago this small group of nuns turned to the University of Arizona Eller College of Management. They wanted help identifying a new business that would suit their prayerful lifestyle and a product that would have a more mainstream appeal than the custom vestments they were already sewing.

Tested in the summer and officially launched in September, Prayerfully Popped – Corn from the Cloister took off, first with Tucsonans and then nationwide.

By late autumn they were popping corn as fast as they could. Then the Wall Street Journal included Prayerfully Popped in a “foodies” holiday shopping guide. “We had everyone working and the machine running the entire time. We could not produce as much as we could have sold,” said John Adams Leavitt, an Eller graduate student who helped launch this novel business and serves on the new company’s board of directors.

Popping and Tasting for Perfection

A Catholic and fifth-generation Tucsonan, Leavitt gathered four other Eller students – Megan McConnaughey, Christopher Wheelock, Daniel Stone and Dustin Damashek – who decided to help the nuns find a suitable business as a class project. The team initially pursued another idea, but popcorn proved to be a low-cost product that was easy to produce and easy to package. It was something the 22 sisters felt they could do.

Eller faculty members and students connected with Phoenix business consultants Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffin, who had worked with other monastic nonprofits.  Together they developed a business plan and helped launch the gourmet popcorn business. They started popping and tasting. Eller and other UA students help staff the store.

Sister Lucia Anne Le is the popping manager. Born in Vietnam, she spent 15 years sewing vestments at the monastery before mastering the industrial-sized popcorn machine.  She’s partial to the Whitby’s White Cheddar and Jalapeno. Her fellow nuns favor St. Columba’s Sea Salt and Caramel.

The gourmet popcorn flavors range from classic and savory to sweet, seasonal and decadent. Many have monastic monikers like St. Benedict’s Buttery Best.

From Altar Bread to Cloister Corn

Online at, click on the Monastic Description button to learn that “Hilda of Whitby was a saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby. An important figure in the conversion of England to Christianity, she was recognized for her wisdom.” Or that “Saint Columba was a Gaelic Irish missionary monk... one of the 12 apostles of Ireland.” Prayer cards can be added to any order.

Leonel Garcia Iniguez Madero is a senior in the Eller College of Management and an intern for Prayerfully Popped. He’s performed tasks ranging from producing the product to distribution, shipping, customer service and being a retail manager for the store front.

“What was most interesting about this experience thus far was seeing so much of what I've learned in my business classes being applied to a real business situation,” he said. 

“What was challenging was actually seeing how a business works from the ground up, not knowing what to expect or how much planning it took. Soon I am going to begin my training to apply my accounting skills to bookkeeping. What I’m learning is that accounting – such as financial reporting, internal control and data recording – is so crucial to business functioning.

“The aspect that I find very beneficial about this experience is being mentored by the Benedictine Sisters in developing my professional career,” he said.

The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration congregation originated in Switzerland and came to the U.S. in the 1870s. The Tucson monastery was started in 1935. Until the early 1990s they baked Vatican-approved altar bread here. Now that work is done in the Mother House in Clyde, Missouri. There is a third monastery in Dayton, Wyoming.

The Tucson sisters sought a new revenue stream to help with the upkeep of their ornate Romanesque Revival monastery on Country Club near Speedway. They also share the proceeds with other nonprofits that assist the homeless, the hungry and those in need of medical attention.

With the new business booming, it would appear that the sisters’ prayers have been answered.

Learn more about the UA's business programs at the Eller College of Management.