NORTH SYRACUSE — Tucked a floor above its retail candy store at the Franciscan Villa is the nerve center of NunBetter Chocolates & Custom Gift Baskets. This delectable homemade chocolate-making ministry and gift basket enterprise has been one of Syracuse’s best kept (and most delicious) secrets for the past 16 years.

   The smell of chocolate hangs thick in the air of the workshop as each weekday several senior Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities park walkers and wheelchairs outside the room and don hats and aprons to begin their shifts. During the next few hours the sisters enjoy friendly fellowship, laughing and joking with one another. Often lively debates on the pros and cons of the Syracuse University basketball season are held while each sister works on a specific task for the ministry: one weighs out hard candies, another wipes down chocolate molds, a third sister labels candy bags and a fourth sister patiently curls ribbons for the finishing touch on a large corporate order.

   The candy-making ministry concept was conceived at a leadership team meeting for the religious communities 16 years ago. The idea to start a chocolate-making business was suggested as a way to keep senior sisters active.

   “The ministry was not created to make money,” explained Sister Jane Bourne, OSF, the chief chocolate-maker at NunBetter Chocolates. “It was created so that sisters in their 70s, 80s and 90s could continue to be active and involved.” More than 11 sisters currently help with the candy-making operation on a rotating schedule and any sister interested in ministering is accommodated.

   NunBetter Chocolates launched at St. Anthony’s Convent on Court Street in Syracuse; the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities relocated the shop to their new residence facility on Buckley Road in June 2014.

   At the workshop, the sisters make chocolate for all occasions and holidays. They utilize local products whenever possible, and also use products shipped from third party vendors. Selections of hand-made chocolates include several varieties of “bark,” including milk chocolate, almond, peanut butter, potato chip, pretzel joy, pecan, peanut, toasted coconut and cashew. Dipped specialties and novelties are available in white, milk and dark chocolate. There are sugar-free chocolates and hard candy selections, as well as “Heavenly Trash,” a specialty at NunBetter Chocolates that contains a mixture of crunchy cereals, pretzels and mixed nuts smothered in white chocolate. Gift baskets are available at a range of prices to fit all budgets and can be customized for birthdays, weddings, showers or any special occasion.

   The ministry accepts MasterCard and Visa but does not ship chocolate. They do not advertise, but that doesn’t seem to affect NunBetter Chocolates’ steady stream of corporate and consumer clients. Large local orders may be delivered or customers can pick up orders from the retail store located off the lobby at the Franciscan Villa. No order ever leaves the Villa without a prayer.

   “I love the camaraderie and we are always busy,” stated Sister Bernice Eib, OSF, 96, the ministry’s first employee. “There would be nothing else for us to do if we didn’t do this.”

   Sister Rose Marie Mullen, OSF, 83, agrees. “We all love to work here and we enjoy our day together. And of course we really love the candy,” she said with a laugh.

   NunBetter Chocolates and Custom Gift Baskets is located at 6900 Buckley Road, North Syracuse. To place an order, customers can stop in Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Place phone orders by calling (315) 701-0920. The store is closed on Sundays.

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