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Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 14, 2012

WafersHave 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?

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Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 2 months ago
This all reminds me of a story by Annie Dillard that I read years ago - how she made the bread that was to be used by her community for Eucharist.  This is the same Annie Dillard who said that if we really believed what we say at Mass, the ushers would have to pass out crash helmets.

I remember in college (the early 70s) when we had Mass in the lobby of our dormitory and passed around homemade bread.  It somehow made the sacrament more "real" to me, more THIS, us, here and now, gathered and sharing the mystery of God with us, in us.

My hunch is that when the young people of today re-take and re-make the Sacrament of Eucharist, it will be in a different format than with factory produced wafers.
Craig McKee
11 years 2 months ago
Blessed are you, Lord God of all
creation, for through your
goodness we have received the
bread we offer you: fruit of the
and work of human
it will become for us the
bread of life.
11 years 2 months ago
Factoy made, machine produced communuion wafers is offensive to me. I never knew this was being done. Every parish should be madated to produce on premise its own wafer needs, by laity or Religious individuals, hired and funded by the local Bishop under the supervision of the local Pastor. There's something distasteful about factory produced Eucharistic bread!
11 years 2 months ago
It is easy to understand that the wafer is bread.  It is difficult to understand that the bread is Jesus.

I would focus on bringing alive the Real Presence of Jesus since this is the more difficult reality to understand.
John Donaghy
11 years 2 months ago
There are a number of congregations of sisters who make hosts, including the Benedictine Sisters in Clyde, Missouri.
11 years 2 months ago
When I hear the words, ''The Body of Christ,'' and receive the Sacred host at Mass tomorrow, I hope I won't be thinking about where and how the bread was produced.  Yes, bread is how I think of it, not wafer.  But maybe I ought to think of the men and women who grew and harvested the wheat and who produced the other ingredients, and of those who participated in mixing the batter and baking it, especially the very one that I receive.  God bless all of them.  And they are blessed if they have a job in these difficult times.
11 years 2 months ago
Hi Mr. Kash,
It’s true that it’s difficult (impossible really) to understand that the “host” ‘wafer” “bread” becomes the glorified, resurrected, living  Jesus, after the Words of Institution are said by the priest at the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. In fact the certitude of Faith assures that “bread” no longer exists, having been substantially changed into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. Obviously, or not so obviously, at the supernatural level we’re dealing with mystery, not terribly hard to grasp in that, on the natural  level  mystery is all around us! Mystery happens!
This Mystery of Faith, the Eucharist, becomes even more incredible when one realizes that on the night before he died, before his resurrected, living glorified body happened, at the Last Supper Jesus confected in Eucharist a reality that humanly speaking had not yet happened! This becomes graspable only in the realization that God is not bound by the contraints of time, residing in the eternity of an everlasting “Now” where everything that is going to express itself naturally within a time-frame, already exists as a “done deal”  within Divine fore-knowledge. Clearly in trying to understand the reality of eternity as God understand that reality to be, we are left awestruck by something altogether “other!” That’s what Eucharist is, “something altogether other!”
Interestingly, while it’s impossible to even begin to grasp the mystery of Eucharistic  transubstantiation  supernaturally, one can grasp at the natural level,  the concept of natural transubstantiation, in that naturally by way of ingestion, digestion and assimilation, bread and wine, for example, can be changed into our body and blood. Perhaps  too simple and imcomplete an  explanation, but for me at least, it helps me to better understand Eucharist, telling in a way, that, whatever is possible naturally is also possible supernaturally!  So, “wafer” “host” “bread” thank you Jesus! I hpe this makes some sense to you.  

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