The Bread of Life
Father Gabriel Rochelle has come to Las Cruces to establish an Orthodox mission — and to show folks a thing or two about baking bread.
By Jeff Berg
Father Gabriel Rochelle is not your typical man of the cloth. A newcomer to Las Cruces, the Orthodox priest wasn't here long before noting the lack of real bread. Not the spongy enriched stuff that is passed off as bread in local groceries, but true artisan-baked bread. Since Rochelle is the author of, among other things, Bread for the Wilderness: Baking as Spiritual Craft, he knew the difference.
A man of action as well as a man of the cloth, Rochelle cut a deal with Mountain View Market, the local food co-op, to fill that void himself. For the last few months, he's been baking several kinds of bread — the real thing — that is fresh and filled with flavor and substance. It contains no preservatives, corn syrup, or dough enhancers. Not since the demise of Bountiful Bakery have Las Crucens had the chance to savor such bread unless they made it themselves. Rochelle has also taught an artisan bread-making class at the co-op.
He has been somewhat frustrated by the sales so far, which are off 30 percent since classes at NMSU ended. But Father Gabe has faith.
Besides baking, he is a man of letters, a long-distance bicyclist and a theological historian. He is also a bit of a Luddite, although he has begrudgingly started using a computer over the last few years, and will be doing podcasts soon.
Rochelle has embraced technology, however reluctantly, to promote the Las Cruces Orthodox Church, a fledgling mission that now shares space at Las Cruces' St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 518 N. Alameda.
The lack of any type of Orthodox church in the area was a reason that Rochelle ended up in Las Cruces. His prior travels have given him addresses in Washington, Illinois and California, and he was once also a book-review editor. "I have 50 boxes of books. I built my library from book reviews," he says with a smile. (Publishers often send advance copies of books out to reviewers or publications with reviewers, gratis.)
Most recently he lived in Pennsylvania. "When we left the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, it was because it had a population of three-quarters of a million people, so all the reasons to stay were gone," Rochelle says. "We almost came to New Mexico 20 years ago, so when we ended up researching the move, we decided that we couldn't move anywhere smaller than Las Cruces, and a population that hovered around 100,000 was an okay size."
Seattle was also considered as a spot to relocate (again) to, but Las Cruces won, since "all of the Orthodox churches are up in northern New Mexico. And there are too many Orthodox churches in Seattle."
Rochelle may have come to Las Cruces to tend to souls, but he couldn't help also doing something about the area's loaves. "I started baking in 1963, not long before Kennedy was assassinated," he says. "I was an apprentice minister in Aurora, Ill., and was speaking with an older woman about bread. I told her that I couldn't eat that junk from the supermarket. So, she said, 'I will give you a recipe, and you go to the store for the ingredients.' I started then and never quit.
"I thought of it as a sideline for quite a while, but in 1997 or so I opened a bakery with a chemistry professor from Muhlenberg College in Bethlehem, Pa."
The chemistry professor wanted to become a chef, and after returning from his training, he and Rochelle opened the Heart in Hand Bakery. "We thought that we could make a living selling wholesale, and then selling whatever was left as retail," Rochelle recalls. Eventually, they closed the shop, and Rochelle moved to Las Cruces in September.
"I had met a few people here, and was soon introduced to the manager of the Mountain View Market (Shahid Mustafa). They were just opening the deli section and they wanted to have artisan breads, and I was hired a half an hour later."
He notes that a true artisan baker tries to use only local products. That hasn't been entirely possible for him just yet, but he is working on it. "I do all the work at the market but still have not been able to grind local grain."
Rochelle has found a good source for local honey, however, and he explains how his sourdough starter, which he brought with him from Pennsylvania, has become a "local" product, too: "Sourdough picks up bacteria in the air, and my sourdough is now Mesilla Valley sourdough. That's why you can't get San Francisco sourdough anywhere else." It's in the air.
He works about 25 hours a week at the market, and makes only bread. Someone else is doing the cookies, muffins and other pastries that the market has started to carry.
His craft, says Rochelle, helps to "transform necessity into pleasure."
Other household chores, similarly, help to calm an overactive mind. "I always enjoyed washing dishes, even as a teen, and found that to be a form of meditation. Still do. When I was first involved in cooking back in my college days, the chef must have observed my attentiveness, so he moved me from dishes into salads, soups and other sous-chef chores. I was hesitant to give up the dishes, but I learned a lot."
Besides his book on baking and spirituality, Rochelle is also the author of What Wondrous Love: Devotions of Lent, Easter and Holy Week. He offers a primer on Orthodox beliefs and history: "The Orthodox Church is a continuation of the original church of the apostles. Fast forward a thousand years or so. The East and West split, and the Roman Catholics take root in the West, and the United Orthodox grows in the East, Africa and somewhat in the Middle East."
He says that Orthodox monks came across the land bridge that once existed in the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska. They encountered the native peoples of that area, such as the Yupik and Tlingit, and from there the Orthodox Church "trickled down the coast to the Russian River area of California."
The Orthodox Church now has about 700 parishes, missions, communities, monasteries and other institutions throughout North America and Mexico. Around 1900, all of the Orthodox communities were united into a single diocese, which fell under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. This included the Greek, Russian and Arabic branches of the church.
"Fast forward again to 2008," Rochelle continues, "and even thought there are eight or nine ethnic identities or Orthodox jurisdictions, all of the worship patterns are the same."
He notes, however, that each has a special place for pilgrimages, such as Mt. Athos in Greece or the Kievan Caves Monastery near Kiev, Ukraine, which has been in use since 1050 AD or so.
Rochelle goes on to explain the importance of saints to Orthodox worshipers, sharing icons of two of them. "An Orthodox Church must have two icons, which help represent a sort of stairway to heaven," he says.
He points out the detail in the icons, such as the elongated fingers of the saints, which signify a spiritual intensity. Enlarged feet suggest that the saint is well-grounded, and a crown of light signifies the saint's "radiating glory," surrounding the head because the head is the center of the spirit, thought and understanding.
One of the noted saints is St. Herman of Alaska. It was he who, along with seven other monks who left the Valaam Monastery of northwestern Russia in 1793, crossed all of Siberia, the Bering Strait, and all of Alaska from north to south, arriving on Kodiak Island in 1794. Kodiak is located in the Gulf of Alaska, perhaps 200 miles south and west of present-day Anchorage. An epic journey to be sure.
Other Russians who were present in the area wanted to (and did) exploit the native peoples, something which the monks opposed vehemently. After a fashion, Herman moved to nearby Spruce Island, and worked building schools and hospitals, while continuing to try to convert the Aleut people who lived in the area. He died in 1836, and was proclaimed as one of the first American Orthodox saints in 1970.
Another interesting saint is Brendan the Navigator. In 512 AD, Brendan and 60 others set to sea from Ireland to find the Isle of the Blessed. Legend has it that he found an island covered with vegetation; over the years, some have argued that this so-called Isle of the Blessed was America. Naysayers must contend with a reenactment voyage by Irish explorer Tim Severin in 1976: Severin built a curragh (a small sailboat made of saplings lashed together with rawhide and covered with hides sewn together with flax) made of ox leather, and sailed it from Ireland to Newfoundland via the Hebrides, Faro Islands and Iceland, thus proving that Brendan's voyage may have actually taken place.
Pointing out that Jesus, after all, had a human side as well as a divine side, Rochelle says of Orthodox believers, "We are okay with the human material realm." He adds with a big knowing smile, "We like things like vodka, sauerkraut and potatoes." And bread, of course.
Perhaps one reason Rochelle can speak so vividly of his Orthodox faith is that it's still fresh to him: He has not been an Orthodox priest that long. In fact, most of his religious work was as a Lutheran minister, something he did for over 20 years.
And the switch to Orthodoxy?
"I can go on for hours, but to be as concise as possible, I was attracted by two major aspects of Orthodoxy when I was in my twenties: its tactile or sensory approach to the faith — all the senses are involved in receiving the 'teachings,' a word which sounds more left-brained than I want — and, secondly, that it was an almost-perfect blending of a razor-sharp intellectual approach to faith, on one hand, and the contemplative, meditative and mystical side on the other.
"There are many other reasons," Rochelle adds, "but I think that's about as good as I can express the allure, the magnetism, that drew me. I find myself constantly wishing that people who are attracted to 'eastern religions' as a whole would come to the realization that Christianity has its own eastern slant in Orthodoxy."
Not that he puts down those with different views. "To deny other people their place at the table will not make you feel better, in the long run," Rochelle has written. "Denial merely papers over your insecurities. The social is the personal: you cannot escape your insecurities by putting down those whose positions make you uncomfortable."
Writing also has a spiritual side for Rochelle. "Writing with a sharp #2 pencil is a form of meditation for me as well," he says. "I am sure that was one of the aspects of the task that led me into calligraphy and illumination later in life."
He writes a twice-monthly column for the Sun-News, entitled "Paths of the Saints," and he is working on a revised edition of his bread book.
"It will be slightly different, using natural leavening, and will include sourdough," Rochelle says of the latter. "When you read it, I want you to learn how to make bread, and if I could publish it without recipes, I surely would."
Father Gabriel Rochelle's other passion is biking. He is fit and robust and has been riding bicycles seriously since the 1970s, now averaging about 100 miles a week, perhaps 13-14 miles per day. On his birthday, he "rides the number of miles I am old," he says.
Moving to New Mexico has expanded his bicycling season, but that's not the only advantage he sees here. He says, "Some of the people in my bicycling group say it is so boring here, but they just don't appreciate things like the blue sky."
Just before he pedals away, Father Gabe adds one last note about his other "calling": "I just enjoy my bread — bread as spirituality," he says, "and that makes me a priest of creation."
For more information about the Las Cruces Orthodox Mission, check the Web site at www.lascrucesorthodoxchristian.com or contact Father Gabriel Rochelle at email@example.com Both of his books, published under the name Jay Cooper Rochelle, are available through Amazon.com or by ordering via local booksellers. He will also be conducting more bread-making classes at Mountain View Market, tentatively in September; sign up early, as previous classes have all filled quickly. 1300 El Paseo Rd # M, 523-0436, www.mountainviewmarket.com
Senior writer Jeff Berg is a self-confessed "bread-head" who lives
in Las Cruces: "By that, I mean I love the stuff, not that my head
is filled with dough."