When Mother Mary Anselma Felber assigned Sister Mary Agnes to bake the first altar bread for her fledgling Benedictine community, she began a 100-plus year tradition that would one day become her abbey’s major source of income.
Sister Mary Agnes cooked the hosts in small batches, the dough pressed inside a cast-iron mold and baked over an open fire. In those days, Sister made only enough for herself and the four others who had come to America in 1874 to found the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri.
Over the years, the method would change, and the community would grow. And in 1910, the Sisters began producing quantities of their altar bread to sell to parishes. Later this year, when the community — now 65 strong — welcomes guests and dignitaries, they will be celebrating the 100 years since their first host was sold.
The event at the monastery, located among rolling hills and fields of corn and soybeans, promises to be poignant and prayerful. Honored guests will include the bishop from Kansas City, Benedictine monks from a nearby abbey, various diocesan priests, former lay employees of the monastery, and neighbors. There will be refreshments and (mostly) joyful recollections. “There will also be laughter," says Sister Rita.
“One thing we’ll do is look over our archived photos," she said. “We’ll recall how the bread was baked 50 and 20 years ago and we’ll wonder, How did we do it?"
In the early days, the Sisters baked the dough at the end of tongs over an open fire, or cooked it between two heated iron molds, similar to a waffle iron. Today, the bread is baked using automated equipment that produces more than 2 million hosts a week.
Over the course of a century, the monastery has become the nation’s largest Religious producer of altar bread, serving parishes in the United States and Canada as well as Mexico, Haiti, Ireland, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.
The Sisters have a high-tech baking operation in a turn-of-the-20th-century brick building surrounded by maples and oaks and located about 200 feet from the monastery proper. It’s a job that begins at 5 a.m., “when a gentleman comes in to mix the batter and start the oven," says Sister Rita. Nearly 20 nuns and lay employees are involved.
As busy as the enterprise is, Sister Rita says the Sisters do not consider the work a business. “It is our way of life," she says, mentioning that St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order, taught that work, reverently and contemplatively done, can be a form of prayer.
St. Benedict’s Rule aside, making altar bread seems to invite special care, if not veneration, no matter where it’s done.
A century ago, before mass transportation and ordering over the Internet, altar bread was made locally, usually by the nuns of the parish or sometimes the laywomen from the church altar society. Making hosts this way was a time-honored tradition, but the tradition began breaking down in the years after World War II, as many convents and monasteries found they couldn’t keep up with the demand. While 60 years ago there were hundreds of Communion host makers in the country, today just a handful remain. Best guess from existing producers: two or three dozen.
The nation’s biggest producer is the Cavanagh Company of Smithfield, Rhode Island. Located in the rural northwestern part of the Ocean State in the area of pick-your-own apple orchards, the company, with 35 employees who work round-the-clock shifts, pumps out 25 million hosts a week. The family-run business estimates it serves 80 percent of the U.S. and Canadian market. It sells its hosts to religious supply centers, convents, and monasteries, which in turn resell them to local parishes for profit.
According to company literature, the Cavanagh Company got its start in 1943, when a Jesuit priest approached John Cavanagh, an inventor, and his son John Jr., and mentioned problems some of the parish nuns of Rhode Island were having with their antiquated bread-making equipment. The Cavanaghs helped with repairs, and three years later John Jr. and his brother Paul started manufacturing and selling new and improved host-making equipment.
But even with the larger baking sheets John Sr. designed, parish nuns were unable to keep up with the demand, which only increased as World War II servicemen began returning home and starting families. The Cavanaghs petitioned the local bishop for permission to begin baking their own bread, and by the early 1950s they were operating from a new 10,000-square-foot plant.
Some monasteries that buy Cavanagh altar bread also make their own. The Passionist Nuns in Ellisville, Missouri, make their bread once or twice a week with only a two-Sister work team. “We’re talking small operation here," says Sister Veronica. The Sisters say they are too busy to take on new orders.
As do all the Sisters who make altar bread, the Passionists consider their work a form of devotion. Sister Veronica says she experiences joy and enthusiasm when she realizes “that when someone consumes each Host, he will be blessed by taking Jesus into himself." She says when she cuts the altar bread by hand, she sometimes wonders who might receive a particular host, and then says a prayer for that person.
Whether made in Missouri or Rhode Island, altar bread must be produced in accordance with Church specifications: The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.
The Church establishes a standard for making Communion bread but will allow exceptions. After Vatican II in the mid-1960s, for example, the Church allowed use of a darker, thicker host with a more familiar bread-like taste and texture. Prior to Vatican II hosts were pure white and thinner.
A few years back, the Sisters in Clyde sought and received permission from the U.S. Conference of Catholic of Bishops to make a host extremely low in gluten. The wheat protein, when consumed, exacerbates celiac disease, a condition affecting the small intestine (see related story on page 94). The ailment had kept many sufferers from receiving the Eucharist. The Sisters report that since they began making the hosts about five years ago, more than 4,500 people with the disease have been receiving them at Communion.
Some parishes make their own Communion hosts, an endeavor that harks back to the days when altar bread was made locally by the Sisters and women of a parish. For the past 15 years, a group of women (and now one man) at St. Timothy Church in Norwood, Massachusetts, have been baking hosts in their home kitchens, says Colleen Campion, the church’s director of liturgy. The quarter-inch thick, brownish host is offered at two of four Masses on Sundays. Campion says the bakers occasionally hear complaints — and compliments — about the bread, and that the bakers meet to discuss how to tweak procedures when warranted.
“This bread appears real and tangible, so it gives a richer sense of what the Last Supper celebration was like for Jesus," says Campion.
“This is a wonderful ministry," she adds, saying the baking is a welcome option for a church volunteer “who might not feel comfortable in front of (a crowd of) people but who does feel comfortable in a kitchen."