Have you ever wondered where the wheat wafers used for communion are made before they find their way to the altar? Chances are, those bits of bread were made in a factory in Rhode Island. Killing the Buddha explores the subject:
The wafers I bought were manufactured by the Cavanagh Company of Greenville, Rhode Island, which now makes 80 percent of the “altar breads” consumed in the US. The automation in Cavanagh’s facility is on par with that of Pepperidge Farm or Frito-Lay: they use custom-converted versions of the wafer ovens that turn out cream-filled vanilla wafers, and bake according to a patent-protected process that gives their wafers a sealed edge—to avoid crumbs. Cavanagh’s engraving plates stamp crosses and Christian lambs in their dough, while other companies use the same equipment to emboss their wheaten products with trademarks and brand-unique tessellations. Their batter is tested with an electronic viscometer. Their flour blend is a trade secret.
Cavanagh’s wheat is supplied in shipments of 42,000 to 45,000 pounds, bouncing across the heartland in eighteen-wheelers every three weeks. Their supplier, Archer Daniels Midland, is one of the biggest corporations in agribusiness: the same flour that ends up on Catholic altars across the country in the form of hosts could, according to ADM, end up in tortillas, refrigerated doughs, “Asian noodles,” bagels, and doughnuts at your local supermarket. In an unexpected parallel to more globalized industries—think apparel, electronics—ADM’s employees do not necessarily know how their product will be used. The majority, according to John Dick, Cavanagh’s sales representative at ADM, have no idea that the flour they grind will one day become, in the eyes of millions, the body of Christ. The very idea, Dick said, is “awe-inspiring” to him.
Locally made breads by men and women religious was once the standard, but even communion wafers aren’t immune to industrialization and globalization. The Australian Brisbane Times reported last year that most churches there have eschewed local wafers for the US giant:
THE humble Communion wafer can become the body of Christ, many Christians believe, but changes of a profane kind might yet signal the end of Australia's artisan altar bread industry.
Two of the few NSW producers - including Ozanam Industries, the country's biggest - have bowed out, while an imported crumble-free range whose makers say is 'untouched by human hands' is increasingly the wafer of choice in Australian churches. Ozanam, a St Vincent de Paul Society company that switched off its machines last month, said it passed on the work to the Poor Clares at the Bethlehem Monastery in Campbelltown 'as they were seeking an extra source of revenue'.
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.
Should the origin of communion wafers be a consideration for Catholic parishes? Should the principle of subsidiarity apply to the procurement of bread and wine? Does it simply feel more sacred to know that wafers were produced by hand rather than machine? And would a bit of actual bread rather than a wafer product, bring to life the concept of a Eucharistic meal?