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Knead Virtue

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Knead Virtue

Lessons on virtue and bread making in Europe.

Autumn 2023 | Jessica Walker

In This Article

The 9 o’clock church bell echoes through the valley of Gaming, Austria, and the bakers get to work. Metal bowls, flour sack towels, and kitchen scales come off the windowsill. Mason jars pop open. Each jar has a masking-tape nametag for the sourdough starter it houses. A hundred grams of “Barbie,” “Poppy,” or “Dave” swirls with lukewarm water in a bowl.

Then comes the flour. So much flour. It quickly coats everything—the tables, stone floor, even a few faces.

“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty,” Grace Trueman says as I mix what will become my very first loaf of sourdough bread. “You can use a spoon for this, but your hands are best.”

The junior philosophy major tells me she hadn’t made sourdough before last week. You’d never know it. She tosses ingredients into her bowl with just a glance at her recipe notes. This morning, she’s adding fresh rosemary. Next to her, student John Nava pours cinnamon into his loaf

Meanwhile, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Clumps of dough cling to my fingers. It’s my first day in Franciscan University’s From Gluten to Glory course. But to those studying abroad here in the Kartause Maria Thronus Iesu, it’s better known as “the bread class.”

Part theology, part philosophy, and part psychology, the class aims to teach virtue formation through the art of sourdough bread making.


The Recipe

The idea came, as most great ideas do, over a cup of coffee.

Philosophy professor Dr. Brandon Dahm and psychology professor Dr. Matthew Breuninger were sitting inside Leonardo’s Coffeehouse in Steubenville one afternoon in early 2019. Their conversation drifted to parenting, how incredibly rewarding it is and also how incredibly difficult.

Virtue, they agreed, is talked about as an abstract concept. You want to be a more patient dad? Just be more patient. Sounds easy. Until it’s 2:00 a.m., your toddler shakes you awake, the baby wails from her crib, and you haven’t had more than four hours of sleep since … you can’t remember.

What was needed, they decided, was a more concrete way to teach virtue and good habit formation. A practical skill could serve as the analogy. This skill should be something students could easily learn, get feedback from, and repeat to improve. In turn, they could come to see virtue in the same way— not as a mere idea but as something that requires deliberate practice.

One skill rose above the rest: sourdough bread making.

First, because making sourdough is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. And second, because it provides an immediate, tangible result in the form of a warm, pillowy (and hopefully delicious) loaf.

Except Dahm and Breuninger weren’t bakers. So, they read about bread. They got help from friends who made bread. And they baked. A lot.

They realized their one-of-a-kind class needed a one-of-a-kind venue. Industrial kitchen space was a must; a dozen students would need to bake bread at once. But more than that, the place itself needed to inspire virtue. It needed to be beautiful and encourage prayerful self-reflection. It also needed to foster community and get students out of their comfort zones

The choice of the Kartause was obvious. Franciscan’s study abroad site is a restored 14th-century Carthusian monastery tucked within the foothills of the Austrian Alps, immersed in natural beauty and rich Catholic history—and it has industrial ovens. For the class’s grand finale, they would travel to Paris, France. There, students could sample the bread of true masters and visit historic Catholic sites.

By the fall semester, the professors were ready to recruit. They made posters, had informational sessions, and, of course, baked bread. Students signed up, eager to spend three weeks of their upcoming summer in Europe.

But in March 2020, the world shut down. And stayed shut down.

Not until May 2023 did Dahm, Breuninger, and their families pack their suitcases and head to the airport. The bread class was finally in session.

Dr. Brandon Dahm and Dr. Matthew Breuninger, the masterminds of the From Gluten to Glory class.


Feeding the Starter

“This week, work on something with your bread,” Dahm says in our improvised classroom next to the Kartause’s kitchen. A dozen student bakers are already mixing their batches of dough. “Think about an aspect of the process and intentionally develop it.”

Grace dips her fingers into a dish of water. She shows me how to gently scrape the dough away from the sides of the bowl and form it into an oblong shape. She pulls up the dough, her thumbs placed near its center, and gently encourages one end to fold underneath the rest. She gives the bowl a quarter turn.

She folds, folds, folds again, as if wrapping a gelatinous Christmas present. This folding, she explains, will be repeated every 30 minutes, for a total of seven times throughout the day. Instead of being kneaded, sourdough is stretched and folded to activate the gluten that holds the bread together and helps it rise.

During one of these folds, Breuninger comes over. He takes my bowl to the window. He points out the thin skin forming over the dough. It’s now pockmarked with bubbles.

“You’ll start to feel a change in the texture, too,” he promises.

At first, I don’t know how dough could feel like anything other than, well, doughy. But, as I continue to fold, it does change. What was a sticky, shaggy mess becomes as silky and pliable as potter’s clay. Between folds, the students take notes about their batch of dough—what they changed, how the dough looks, how the folding feels.

I sit down next to Rebecca Sullivan as she’s writing in her notebook. Without thinking, I stick out my hand for a handshake. She smiles and raises her palm. It’s coated with dough. She tells me the bread class is the first time she’s traveled overseas and the last credits she needs for her psychology degree. She’ll finish her undergraduate studies in front of the Eiffel Tower.

“Learning how to be more virtuous in a philosophical sense and then applying that to learning how to make bread has been really cool,” she says. “And now, I know how to make bread!”

I mention today is my first go-round at making sourdough. Rebecca says the dough is pretty forgiving. For an earlier loaf, she added too much salt, and it turned into something more akin to a pretzel. Now, she’s experimenting with her starter. She grabs her jar and holds it out. It has a tangy, yogurt-like odor.

“It’s still pretty sour, which is not necessarily what you want.” Rebecca snaps the lid closed. “But I’m here for it.”

While the dough rests, Dahm and Breuninger take turns leading discussions. This particular morning, Dahm introduces virtue and vice. Virtue, he explains, is a habitual disposition to do good. Vice is the opposite and takes us further from our ultimate end in God.

He sketches out the two kinds of virtue: acquired and infused. Acquired virtues are gained through a person’s deliberate actions. Infused virtues are gifted from God. But even virtue, like sourdough, needs the right starter.

Sourdough starter may look like pale, bubbly cake batter. But the starter is alive. Mix flour and water, let it sit, and the wild yeast existing all around us—on our hands, in the air— gets to work. Like most living things, the starter needs regular “feedings” to keep it happy and healthy. Neglect its meals of flour and water, and it dies. Virtue likewise needs the same action and attention—along with God’s graces—to grow.

“God doesn’t just want to zap us into holiness,” Dahm explains. “God values our story. He cares that there is a story.”

While talking, he wanders back to his workstation and folds his dough. He wipes his hands on a towel, slings it over his shoulder, and returns to the whiteboard to jot another note.

The church bell tolls at noon, and everyone gives their dough one last fold before heading to daily Mass in the Kartause’s chapel. Rather than pause the day’s rhythm, Mass is the peak. Afterward follows continued lessons in virtue and bread making. Comments and questions are punctuated with the thumps of bowls hitting tables or the soft tsks of pastry scrapers. By 3:00 p.m., the dough is placed in the fridge overnight to await baking the next day.

No Ideal Loaf

The entire class is huddled around the ovens. Yesterday was spent mixing, folding, and shaping dough. This morning, the dough was scored, or cut so it rises and cracks in a controlled way while baking. Some, like mine, have a simple crescent slash. Others feature more artistic cuts in the shape of leaves or geometric patterns.

All are beyond our help now.

But slowly, a warm, nutty scent wafts from the ovens. Dahm slides the baked loaves onto a rack and wheels it into our classroom. Everyone searches for their loaf. Is it crisp? Did it rise?


“There’s no ideal loaf of bread. There’s really good bread that could always be better in some way.”


They hurry to cutting boards to check the crumb, or what’s inside the crust.

“Oh, can I try yours?”

“That one smells so good!”

“Where’s the butter?”

I saw a knife down the middle of my first loaf. The goal is a puffed-up oval with a crisp crust on the outside and tiny, even air bubbles inside. Mine does have a crust that crackles under a blade. But the inside is gummy and dense with two Swiss cheese-sized holes. Then, the class discussion starts.

“Today’s lecture is about acknowledging where you are,” Breuninger says. “That can help us better appreciate what virtues we need to enact and vices we need to eliminate.”

As he talks, I realize my unsuccessful loaf is part of the lesson. I lean toward being a perfectionist. Scratch that. I am a perfectionist. Even on my first time doing something, I don’t just want to be OK. I want to excel. Not having my first sourdough loaf succeed would normally cause me to give up.

But here I am, folding my next batch of dough as Breuninger talks about the ingredients that go into who we are and why we might act the way we do. This batch is only my second. Yet, I notice things I wouldn’t have thought to consider yesterday. I see the bubbles in the starter, where to place my hands as I fold, and how the dough steadily balloons in size.

My thoughts echo something Breuninger later tells me while we’re waiting for a batch of dough to rest. For him, baking bread has shown how he sways from perfectionism to a more blasé, laid-back attitude. In being more intentional about his bread making, he’s grown in self-knowledge.

“By recognizing that tendency or pattern in myself, I can begin to think about what virtues might help. Why do I approach life in that way? What bad habits underlie that approach? How can I begin to correct that?” he says. “I noticed it with bread, but it’s really relevant to so many other areas of my life, my parenting, profession, and business.”

Growing in virtue may not be as simple as adding flour, water, and salt. But the process begins with acknowledging where growth needs to happen. Only then can those virtues be fed through small, simple practices—and, eventually, give rise to something far better.

And if an external task of making bread can get students to even start that interior self-reflection, then the professors have done their job.

“You start from who you are and where you’re at, instead of from some ideal place,” Dahm says as we’re cleaning up after class. “There’s no ideal loaf of bread. There’s really good bread that could always be better in some way.”

He wipes flour off a table and adds, “Thinking about that through the lens of virtue formation, each of us is our own person in our own place with our own struggles. We need to grow from there.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

Tuesday night is pizza night. The Kartause’s Chef Marco heads the kitchen but, for this dinner service, the bread class students are his sous chefs.

Some of us work on stretching palm-sized balls of sourdough into circles. Other students are on assembly. Ladles of sauce, scoops of cheese, slices of ham, and kernels of corn—yes, corn—all end up on pizzas.

As quickly as the piping hot pies enter the dining hall, they disappear. Other Franciscan students taking the traditional summer classes in Gaming pile their plates high. They extend their compliments to the chefs. Those chefs continue to spread sauce onto dough and snag their own slices between bakes.

Maybe I’m biased. But even the corn-and-artichoke pizza tastes delicious.

That night, and the rest of the week, the community formed through the bread class becomes clearer. Not through a single, grand event but in the unseen, everyday moments.

It’s how students sit together and discuss everything from their struggles with virtue to their favorite childhood Disney movies. It’s how they take turns playing with the professors’ kids and giving them piggyback rides during evening walks through Gaming. It’s how even those not enrolled in the class drop by, and there’s always somehow enough starter to go around.

Wednesday night, students set up easels upstairs in the beautiful Baroque-style bibliothek. The two models for the evening—bread class student Ahila Garza and Franciscan art professor Carl Fougerousse ’98—sit back-to-back. Drawing and painting professor Marisa Lilje instructs everyone to start drawing and to have fun with it.

Those students taking Lilje’s summer drawing course start sketching lines. Others, like myself, put pencil to paper but quickly break out the eraser. Lilje strolls to each easel. She offers encouragement and suggestions on how to better portray the model’s face from a certain perspective or how to add shadows created by the studio lights. By the time the hour is up, everyone has created a portrait featuring their own rendition of the models.

The art lesson continues the following day when Fougerousse leads a discussion in the bread class. He highlights several paintings by artist Pieter Bruegel that feature both bread and Christian imagery. Students offer their ideas about the bread, vice, and virtue they see represented in the artwork.

“An artist like Bruegel is really intentional about everything he’s doing in the orchestration of the painting,” Fougerousse notes. “He’s also intentional on the same level with the way in which he’s practicing virtues in his life.”

Drawing, like bread making, is another practical skill that can illustrate virtue formation. It, too, requires practice, continued growth, and much self-reflection and self-correction. Creating art, after all, can be a very contemplative process, something Fougerousse knows from his own work as an artist.

“The best ways to orchestrate a painting or sculpture so it has the most possible meaning doesn’t come to you readily sometimes,” Fougerousse says. “You’re opening yourself up to guidance by the Holy Spirit, the source of creativity in God.”

The rest of the day, students get creative with their final batch of sourdough. They add in cranberries or olives or score picture-perfect artistic designs.

By Friday afternoon, the students, professors, and their families gather in Austrian Program Director Tom Wolter’s backyard. These last loaves—all of them crisp and puffy—are placed on a gingham tablecloth. Sticks of butter melt in the sunshine and knives rest beside jars of colorful jams. With the gentlemen clad in Austrian jackets and ladies in aproned dirndls, our garden party looks like a scene out of The Sound of Music.

Tomorrow, we’ll leave for Paris. Tomorrow, we’ll arrive in a city with renowned bakeries and holy saints to further learn from exemplars of both bread and virtue.

But for now, we enjoy the bread—and company—we’ve made.

Americans in Paris

“Jess, Jess, I have an opening line for you,” Breuninger says. He gives his pitch. “I was stuck in a hot metal tube when the guy behind me bumped into me with his stroller.”

We’re waiting on the crowded jet bridge for our Ryanair flight from Vienna to Beauvais-Tillé Airport. Breuninger keeps his hands firmly on his stroller. This is probably the third opening line he’s suggested for this magazine story. It won’t make the cut, but it does make me laugh.

One bumpy flight, two long bus rides, and three metro stations later, we set down our suitcases in Paris. Gone are the tree-covered mountains and crisp Alpine air of Gaming. Paris is brimming with people. Commuters push onto metros. Tourists snap photo after photo on Sacré-Coeur’s steps overlooking the city. Crêpiers roll up sweet creations in shop windows. And artisan bakeries wait around every corner.

One morning, we’re circled around a park bench in Square Boucicaut. We pass around loaves bought from nearby bakeries. A four-pound sourdough scored with a cursive “P,” for example, is from the generations-old shop Poilâne. Our park bench is soon littered with ripped chunks of sourdough, wheat, and seeded breads.

“We just tasted bread from really great bakeries in Paris,” Dahm says. He leans on the back of the bench. “What do you guys think?”

Students talk about those they liked and those they didn’t. Before this class, one says, she might have been more in awe of breads labeled with names of Parisian bakeries. But now that she’s made her own sourdough, she’s more critical of each loaf.

Dahm says that’s part of skill development. Progressing from novice to proficiency and, eventually, to mastery requires gaining deeper insight. It also requires finding experts or models to look up to so we can keep growing, keep striving for that next step on the journey.

For instance, anyone can read a book on sourdough. Breuninger says he read one. His first loaves were terrible. Then he watched Franciscan philosophy professor and friend Dr. Alex Plato make his sourdough. Through that example, Breuninger improved his own techniques. The same is true of virtue.

“It’s one thing to read about a saint,” Breuninger notes. “It’s another thing to encounter saints in person and watch them. How do they respond to slights? How do they respond to frustrations? When you watch it, you get something very concrete and tangible.”


“I should never have a doubt that God has things handled.”


Some of those saints are a short walk from our park bench. So, after our bread sampling, we navigate narrow city streets and follow signs for Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal. We slip into the pews during midday Mass. To either side of the altar are the bodies of St. Catherine Labouré and St. Louise de Marillac. Above stands a statue of virtue herself, Our Lady with rays of graces falling from her open hands.

Under Mary’s gaze, the priest raises the Eucharist. Of all the breads in Paris, this is Bread par excellence.


Travel Lessons

The next day, we trade our shady park bench for the sundrenched lawns of the Jardin du Carrousel. The Louvre and its endless hallways of artistic masterpieces surround the gardens. Sightseeing bicycle tours whiz past on the sandy paths.

We snack on even more loaves from even more local bakeries. We do talk about bread again. But we also talk about the experience overall—what worked, what could be improved, and lessons learned.

For junior Marie Jirgal, enrolling in the bread class itself was a lesson in trust. None of her friends signed up, and she hadn’t traveled alone before. Flying solo to study internationally was one leap of faith that seemed a little too big. But her parents told her, “Don’t not go if it’s fear holding you back.”

So, she made the leap. Was it still nerve-wracking? Yes. Was it still filled with unknowns? Yes. But now?

“I should never have a doubt that God has things handled,” she says. “The class in general helped me reflect so much on how I’ve been growing and how I can continue to grow.”

When asked about her greatest takeaway from the bread class, Marie pauses. Then she answers, thoughtfully.

“Whenever I feel called to do something scary, just do it. God’s always with us.”

I have to agree. I am no world traveler. Saying yes to a trip to Austria may have taken me all of five seconds. Actually boarding a plane to travel somewhere I’ve never been, to write about a class that’s never happened before, with people I do not know—now, that led to a bit of anxiety at Gate B51 in Dulles International Airport.

But I navigated foreign airports and metros. I became a student again, learning how to make decent sourdough and, more importantly, that growing in virtue is possible. I reflected and prayed everywhere from Austrian wildflower fields to centuries-old French churches. And I met people of all ages and personalities who were each, to a person, a welcoming travel companion.

Our professors sum it up best while we lounge outside the Louvre. Travel, they say, forces you to learn about yourself. It shows you just how much you aren’t in control and God is. It pulls you out of your routine and into the present moment. And it’s the present moment, after all, where God works.


So Long, Farewell

Just like that, it’s our last night. Our last night in Paris, and our last night of bread class. The class couldn’t have concluded any other way than it does—with a Parisian picnic in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

We celebrate Rebecca completing her bachelor’s degree and sing an off-key “Happy Graduation” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” She’s crowned with a red beret. A baguette serves as her diploma.

Spread before us in the grass are prosciutto and salami, rose honey and chardonnay mustard, unpronounceable cheeses, and, of course, bread. No class discussion this time. Just an impromptu graduation party, good conversations, and goodbyes as the sky deepens from the faintest lilac to the deepest cobalt.

By 10:00 p.m., the summer sun sinks below the horizon. The Eiffel Tower takes its place, a golden glow spreading from its base to its summit. Another hour passes.

The tower suddenly twinkles as if home to a thousand fireflies. Up and down the Seine River are cheers and applause. That night, Breuninger provides the perfect closing line.

“It’s hard to imagine any other class ending like this.”


Want to make your own bread? Check out bread recipes from Franciscan alumni at

Plans for another bread making and virtue class are in the works for summer 2024. Alumni and friends are welcome to participate. For more information, contact Dr. Brandon Dahm at [email protected].

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