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 kept the operation running, 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 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 also 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, 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, after those are sold, an out-of-state producer of cosmetic products will take over production. The religious community needs to sell about 32,000 tubes to break even, Brother Wyrzykowski 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, Dr. 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.
Dr. 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 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 Wyrzykowski said of Dr. 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."
Dr. 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 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," Dr. Hackett said.