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"Buying the Body of Christ"

Here is an absolutely fascinating, and for me very saddening, article on the economics of the production of altar bread. At stake is the struggle taking place between a Rhode Island company that produces 80% of the communion wafers consumed in the U.S., and a dwindling number of religious communities that still attempt to compete with them. An excerpt:

The difference is evident on the factory floor. The production plant at the Clyde, Missouri monastery, is adorned throughout with crucifixes and religious art, like a flour-dusted store-front church. Beneath Jesus on the cross, the nuns concentrated devotion recalls the Shaker cabinetmakers of the nineteenth century, sculpting the back of dresser drawers for His eyes only. The Cavanagh Co. does not have any religious ornaments in their production facility: in a factory constantly clouded with pulverized wheat, it would be inappropriate, Dan Cavanagh reasoned, to put a cross up and have it essentially defaced with flour dust. Cavanagh Co. retains a Christian sensibility, but what capitalist does not think his customers beliefs are sacred? The majority [of our staff] is Catholic, but I am not sure if they go to church regularly, Dan went on. From a company standpoint, this is not important, as their job entails making sure that the product quality is top-notch. They simply do not identify with the product in the same way that women religious tend to. The Sisters in Clyde tell their customers theyre not just getting a product, theyre getting a prayer, and consider their prayers part of our promise to our patrons. They are enriched through prayer themselves.

Thesis: Buying altar breads from the Cavanagh Co. makes one complicit in what John Paul II called a "structure of sin". Corollary: So does buying socks from Wal-Mart. Anyway, you should read the whole thing.

Image credit: Flickr user Santos.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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Web site of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration: sell popcorn, too.

According to the article, Cavanagh sells 70% of its production to convents who then repackage it and sell it to parishes in their area, making profits that way, rather than baking altar breads themselves. This allows convents that don't want to hire lay staff to produce wafers to continue to support themselves from the sale of altar breads. As with parochial schools, in-house production of altar breads depended on having large numbers of sisters or nuns available to do unpaid work. The history page of the Cavanagh website announces that the need for better equipment became even more pronounced among convent bakers during the post-World War II boom in population, when returning servicemen married and raised families. At the time, there were still several hundred cloistered communities producing altar breads in the US. But already, the number of wafer-producing convents was declining with the overall slump in vocations. As shrinking convents tried to cope with demand from growing congregations, some sought to change their relationship with Cavanagh Co. They no longer wanted machinery; they wanted to buy the bread itself. Nuns, in turn, would cut and package the wafers, and act as distributors rather than producers. The Cavanaghs asked the blessing of the Bishop of Rhode Island, and duly set up their own production facilities, quickly expanding to their present site on the Putnam Pike. Yet those convent bakers that remained suddenly found themselves in competition with an entirely different breed of producer. With Cavanaghs entry in the market, the number of wafer-producing convents dwindled even further and tensions arose.There were convents who relied on Cavanagh for their subsistence, and there were convents who saw Cavanagh as a Walmart bearing down on their hometown general store. St. Francis Convent in Hankinson, North Dakota, is among the former. The convents communion wafer production began in 1929 in a tiny room with one small baking iron, and over the next thirty years, their baking grew to outstrip their new vocations. When orders reached thousands a week in 1960, they were no longer able to keep up. The Sisters began purchasing their hosts wholesale from the Cavanagh Co. in 1961, and they continue to conduct their business this way today. Indeed, Cavanagh makes 70 percent of it sales directly to convents who then pack and distribute the hosts to churches nearby, and many would not otherwise be able to support themselves.... The decline of monastic bakers, of course, has come alongside the decline of convents in general. The Clyde monastery receives one or two women every other year, Sister Lynn said, [though] we certainly pray for more. Which leaves a shrinking, aging population of women to run the baking operation, and to take care of the eldest nuns among them. Several of the convents that still bake altar breads, including Sister Lynns, have come to rely on lay employees for some aspects of production. In Clyde, they are machine operators, janitors, and technicians, while the Sisters focus on management and quality control.

The nuns at Clyde once had a substantial printery, also. Old Catholics will recall the lovely Benedictine Booklets that were sold on pamphlet racks in church vestibules. They also published Tabernacle & Purgatory, now known as Spirit and Life.'ve closed some of their monasteries, the ones in Kansas City and St. Louis, and (I think) one at Mundelein. (They lost many of their stained glass windows in a terrible storm last year.)

What a conflict of primary values, of heavenly and mundane images, of ought-to and ought-not-to!! Symbol v. reality, lofty theological goals v. hardheaded pragmatic ones, mages of sweet nuns quietly making bread by hand praying all the while v. images of hard-headed business-women nuns dealing with their distributors, Eastern liturgy v. Western liturgy, ancient stone ovens v. Frito-Lay, the banal v. the beatific . . . ISTM that neither philosophy nor theology has yet figured out how to weigh the competing values in such hard cases as these.

Does morality sometimes require that we buy the more expensive product? Back to the Wal-Mart v. the country store problem :-(

On the basis of the excerpt quoted in the post, I was already leaning against Cavanagh Co. before I began reading the whole article, which, I'm duly chastened to admit, revealed equities and economic realities that cut both ways. Nevertheless, I can't get out of my mind the image generated in the first paragraph of the article of the individual who enjoys scarfing down unconsecrated altar bread. True, the wafers are "the not-yet-realized body of Christ," but they have been imprinted with a cross and are in a form that should be recognizable even to a "lapsed Catholic." Call me old-fashioned, but I find even unconsecrated wafers used as snack food unsettling.

Eating bread that has been "imprinted with a cross" should not be "unsettling".Irish soda bread gets a cross before going into the oven. Hot cross buns are iced with crosses after coming out of the oven. Etc., etc., etc.

It is unsetling. Many different thoughts from where parishes also obtain the wine used to the candles --coming from Syracuse which used to be the center of ecclesiastical candle making and having seen factories here close and the specialty one -paschal candles-- barely holding on. What about the vestment makers and whatever other liturgical accoutrements -- incense, etc.-- that are not in demand? I don't want to see these sisters lose their livelihood, but adaptation -- as some local monasteries have done-- seems to be the order of every day in any era and especially now....

Hard to believe anyone who has ever served Mass or worked in a sacristy has not sampled hosts. (At my boarding school, the nuns used the stale hosts to feed the giant coldfish in the the pond.)As to the Benedictines of Clyde and "adaptation"? Their long history makes it clear that they're experts at adaptation. They've done what was required all along to survive. The popcorn is a new venture, e.g.

That does seem like a worthy and hopefully lucrativel adaptation! Just to add to the mix, I wonder how the fruitcake business is for many places???And I surely agree on the host sampling....

Not sure about the fruitcake business, but I've noticed ads for Trappist coffins and cremation urns. More adaptation.As to the article? I don't think a priest should worry about where his hosts come from. Whatever's easiest/cheapest. (Should the pews be polished with Pledge, or should he insist on beeswax from a convent beekeeper? Should the church bells come from a Catholic bellfounder, or can they come from that Indian foundery that advertises on Catholic web sites?) "The production plant at the Clyde, Missouri monastery, is adorned throughout with crucifixes and religious art, like a flour-dusted store-front church." Huh? Odd metaphor. Makes me think Rowan has never seen the rooms at Clyde where hosts are made OR a store-front church.

Good heavens. Look for something to shock you and you'll find it. If only Benedictine nuns made altar bread, there'd be a story about some being far nicer people than others, or about how some purchased wheat from farmers who mistreated their chickens.

Wafers? Wafers! If a secular newspaper was writing the story, the Upber-Catholics would be totally up in arms about the lack of use of the term "hosts." IMNHO, of course.

The nuns at Clyde celebrated the centennial of their altar bread making last year. Here are some pictures of them at work. The spotless rooms are not "flour-dusted".

Here's a good form of adaptation that makes products from various communities available all in one source. I've used them for years and they have great products and excellent service:

On a related note, it's interesting to brows the CM Almay company, which is something like the LL Bean for clergy now that nuns are aging and most women today don't have time to serve on the Altar Society, much less figure out how to make a pall or a purificator. Most of its clerical vestments and altar linens are made in its Maine workshop. The company does import some specialty items like birettas and baptismal shells from Europe.CM Almy promises to provide quality at a fair price and is dedicated to its own profitability. I suppose if times get tough, it could outsource to sweat shops that hire small children in developing nations, which I would find more unsettling that buying wafers from a company in the U.S. under conditions regulated by the USDA. guess the message is that it's not a bad idea to ask where the things we use in our churches were made under conditions that, as Christians, reflect the compassion of our faith.

Agree that it doesn't hurt to ask. I collect Girl Scout stuff, and for a while most/all of their junk came from China. I asked a lot of questions. Not sure anyone paid attention, but this year, the centennial of the founding, I notice that the stuff is made in the USA. Maybe a church should give the host contract to a poor person in the parish willing/able to bake the hosts and thereby earn some money.

As a sort of parallel, Catholic liturgical music has become a business, with a handful of major publishers dominating the church pew racks and the mindshare of pastors and liturgical musicians. They're all run by wonderful and holy people, many of whom are pastoral musicians in their own right, but these organizations are also businesses that compete with one another. And over the years, some old-school and revered family-owned music printers and distributors have been driven out of business.At one time, the memoir of one of the founders of North America Liturgy Resources (NALR) was on the web, but I can no longer find it. This is the company that began publishing Glory and Praise in the 1970s - a fine example of a start-up fulfilling red-hot market demand. A decade before that, cheap paperback song collections from FEL, with no musical notation, and that looked as though they had been mimeographed, appeared in our pews. I confess I loved all that music, but I'm not sure that dog-eared paperbacks should adorn our worship spaces. The sheer logistics of getting host wafers or choral octavos to the thousands of parishes who need them is not straightforward, and the mechanisms of the free market are pretty good at that sort of task. There might not be a better way. And regarding liturgical music, there is a school of thought, to which I subscribe, that the market mechanisms, from royalty sharing to music downloads, has enabled a flourishing of new Catholic music that has enriched our worship during this post-Renewal period. Perhaps it's somewhat of a mixed bag, all in all.

Should the pews be polished with Pledge, or should he insist on beeswax from a convent beekeeper? Should the church bells come from a Catholic bellfounder, or can they come from that Indian foundery that advertises on Catholic web sites?Should the people come from the local mix, or should he insist on clean, polished people who have gone to confession right before Mass?

David Smith,Please feel free to ignore posts that you consider unworthy of your attention. No one is forcing you to read them, much less to comment on them. You do not need to advertise your nonchalance in every thread.

If anyone is dissatisfied with the mass production (no pun intended) of communion breads, the solution is simple: have the people of the parish bake the eucharistic breads. The process can be as devout as you wish, and shared among as many bakers as you've got. Take matters in hand. Nuns may be dwindling. Not so the faithful. Any parish I've known to do this speaks glowingly of the experience. People like to be part of this, to do have the bread take shape in their homes and bring it to church. It means something to them, to bake the bread for Eucharist. Seriously.Second, I know there are scare quotes around "buying the body of Christ" but I want to register some discomfort with the title of this post. The breads that are bought and sold are not consecrated. They are not the Body of Christ. Once we begin selling actual communion, we'll be in real trouble, but it hasn't happened yet as far as I know. ;)

Oops -- should read "to have the bread take shape in their homes" - delete "do"

The kind of practice Rita Ferrone describes is a good one, but it's not the only, or even necessarily the best, alternative to buying communion breads from enormous corporations. It's an important part of Catholic social teaching that relationships of love and care belong within the marketplace, and not only outside of it (this is what David Cloutier and I were arguing in our recent piece on food in the magazine), and so religious communities and other small-scale, care-filled operations have an important place in a healthy economy.

An aspect of this that the author nearly, but doesn't quite, lay his finger on is that the convents are mission-oriented not-for-profit organizations, while Cavanagh presumably is for-profit (which is not to say that the Cavanagh family wasn't mission-motivated as well). I wonder if this is the same story, writ small, as what has happened in the provision of Catholic healthcare in recent decades, in which for-profit organizations entered the market, transformed it, and forced the not-for-profits to change their paradigm. The Clyde sisters seem to have adjusted; those sisters in Austin did not.There is a sense in which this is the story of the Industrial Revolution writ small as well. It doesn't appear to me that John Cavanagh and his sons came in as predatory marketers to drive the poor sisters out of business. They seem to have offered their ingenuity and labor to the greater glory of God (perhaps I am reading more into it than is given in the article, but it's the impression I have). That they ended up "shaking up the marketplace" doesn't seem to have been their primary motivation, and in fact they seem to have tried to work with the sisters.Without resorting to marketplace terminology, it is possible to note that, in human events, there are occasions when things change in big ways, and then religious orders must cope with the changed environment. It could be social change, as happened in the wake of Vatican II; or it could be political or military developments, as has happened a number of times and places in history when religious orders have been persecuted. Or, as in this case, it can be economic in nature.

Jim P. --The solution to the problem of competition and the inevitable loss of jobs is not to eliminate competition but to have the government provide help for those who lose their jobs, including re-training where necessary.As the old saying goes, if nobody lost their jobs, we'd all still be digging potatoes. (See, I"m not a socialist, I'm a compassionate -- and realistic --capitalist.)

May I put in a modest plug for the wonderful Trappistine nuns of Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita, Arizona (they have a web site) who make hosts.

"If anyone is dissatisfied with the mass production (no pun intended) of communion breads, the solution is simple: have the people of the parish bake the eucharistic breads."Is this allowed? A friend's brother is a priest whose former parish used to come in and make hosts, which apparently was a lot of fun for all, but the bishop ordered them to desist. I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the hosts had to be made to strict specs that could not be repro'd by "amateurs."

Hi, Jean, usually the offense is including verboten ingredients. I just Googled "communion bread recipe". The second result was this page from that offers 43 different recipes for communion bread. I didn't look at all of them, but the first five all have ingredients that would make it illicit: honey, sugar, butter, shortening - anything that would make it actually taste good :-) I don't think even salt is allowed.,1-0,communion_bread,FF.htmlWheat flour and water are what can be used. If you can make that tasty, you're a better cook than me!

From Australia about a convent there becoming a wholesaler of Cavanagh's altar breads because the nuns have becom too old to bake their own. .However, that decision unwittingly helped end decades of tradition for the order, which has stopped making wafers to become a stockist of Cavanagh's, the American, Catholic-affiliated company that supplies much of the world's Communion wafers.The extra workload to supply 300 parishes, schools, religious houses and nursing homes was too much for the ageing nuns, said its abbess, Sister Catherine.''The average age of our sisters here is 70, so the altar bread production was quite intensive - the work involved, the baking and the paste-making and all that '' she said. ''It was a very, very sad time for us to have to give it up, after having made them for over 60 years.'' more:

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