Buying the Body of Christ

Nineteen clicks of the mouse, the electronic brandishing of a credit card, thirteen dollars of my savings. A box of communion wafers was on its way to my apartment. Five days later, it arrived: five hundred whole-wheat discs emblazoned with a cross, packed like bags of Lay’s into two puffed plastic sacks. The size of a half-dollar, an eighth of an inch thick. My roommate, a lapsed but confirmed Catholic, couldn’t get enough of them, inhaling one after the other as if to bring some junk-food jingle to life. Analogies to Styrofoam notwithstanding, they are a low-fat snack. (In Quebec, they have even been marketed that way; prior to consecration, the host is only bread.) I watched him toss the wafers back like popcorn—the unrealized body of Christ, purchased on the Internet.

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.


The Cavanagh Company was founded in 1943, born of the same collision of modern possibility and ancient need that brings us most great inventions. That year, according to company lore, a Jesuit priest in Greenville visited the convent that supplied his parish with communion wafers. He found the nuns toiling away in a stuffy kitchen, baking twenty wafers to a cookie sheet and cutting them out one at a time. It had been this way for centuries. In convents the world over, women religious made the vast majority of bread used for the Eucharist, baking in small batches to supply churches in the vicinity. Producing altar breads was not work but Work, internal to the Church and accompanied by prayer. Still, the priest was dismayed to see his Sisters toil so—they spent so much time baking communion wafers that they couldn’t get any sleep. So thought to ask his parishioners for help. He thought, in particular, of John Cavanagh, an inventor, and his two sons, devout young craftsmen who had smithed baptismal fonts and other objects for the altar after returning from World War II.

John Cavanagh designed the equipment and his sons helped him to build it, developing the earliest machines by adapting waffle irons and humidifiers to the needs of monastic bakers. Soon, the Cavanaghs began to manufacture machines especially for the production of communion wafers—extra-large “wafer irons” and cutters that could punch out ten hosts at a time. With the exception of the electric oven, it was the industry’s first real change in technology in decades, and probably even centuries. The company grew as they helped convents streamline their baking operations.

For those who were following communion-wafer production in the 1960s, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council “really changed everything,” in the words of Brian Cavanagh, John’s great-grandson and the company’s head of sales and marketing. In four sessions spanning the middle of the decade, leaders of the Catholic Church met in Rome with a mandate to redefine Catholicism and heal the sectarian divisions of the past. Observers from all the major Protestant denominations took part. The Pope and the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church signed a mutual “expression of regret” for the Great Schism. It was a split, circa 1054, caused in part by a debate over the use of yeast at the Last Supper. Was Christ a Jew observing the rites of Passover with the Old Testament’s unleavened “bread of affliction” (Roman Catholic), or was he following a New Law, the leaven in his bread an allegory for the propagating powers of the Holy Spirit (Eastern Orthodox)? After 900 years, the churches reached a point of mutually accepting disagreement at Vatican II; academics have yet to lay the question to rest.

What emerged from Vatican II was a more open, updated Catholic Church. It ended the reign of the Latin mass, and it recognized, however begrudgingly, elements of truth and sanctification in traditions beyond its purview. In doing so, it retained a good portion of the baby boomers then coming of age who might otherwise have been tempted to raise their families outside the flock. Just as important for the world of altar breads, Vatican II got Protestants taking Communion again. For Episcopalians, it rekindled the idea of “recapturing what we held in common” with Catholics, as Tom Miller, a Canon of Arts and Liturgy, put it, sitting in an anteroom at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. “In addition to baptism, the Eucharist is the next closest thing, ” he said.  Following Vatican II, not only Episcopalians, but Lutherans and other Protestants began to question their longstanding aversion to taking Communion every week, of steering away from parts of the service that could be seen as “too Catholic.” The Sunday service at St. John the Divine, for instance, now includes the Body and the Blood of Christ. Beginning in the 1960s, without cloistered communities to do their baking, thousands of Protestant churches went looking for wafer suppliers.


Today, Cavanagh’s largest competitor in the US is a convent in Clyde, Missouri, called the Order of Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. The Benedictine Sisters are one of “maybe a dozen” cloistered communities in the US who continue to produce altar breads, one of their managers, Sister Lynn, observed on the phone. Sister Lynn, who is in her thirties and has a warm, librarian-like voice, was thinking back to the paltry attendance at a recent “Altar Breads Seminar” they’d hosted for wafer-producing convents “to share wisdom with each other.” 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 Lynn’s, 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 change aligns with some of the broadest shifts in American society during the second half of the twentieth century—women entering the workforce, opportunities for education outside religious schools, the decline of regular church attendance, and the mechanization of food production. But it can also be read through the history of the Cavanagh Company.

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 Cavanagh’s 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 convent’s 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.

And then there are convents like the Franciscan Poor Clare Nuns of Brenham, Texas, whose founding members fled Cuba in 1960 and began making altar breads for the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi. In 1975, the Poor Clare Nuns took over baking hosts for the Austin Diocese as well, stepping in for the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, already ripe in years and without new vocations. But only a few years later, as their website has it, “fate, and the Holy Spirit, intervened”:

The Cavanagh Company, that big monstrous secular competition, began changing their breads. They made whole wheat breads. We learned to make whole wheat breads. They made theirs a fraction larger. We had a machine built that would cut them larger. They made theirs a little thicker, with a cross incised in the middle. We couldn’t copy that.

In effect, what the Poor Clare Sisters describe above is the transformation of a good, or a useful object, into a product. For the first time, Communion wafers had arrived in the capitalist marketplace. Producers of Communion wafers had never had a reason to change the basic characteristics of their breads. Production and consumption were internal to the Church, and as long as wafers conformed to longstanding liturgical standards, why change them? The production of hosts was essentially a religious function; it was a means for nuns to practice their ministry and simultaneously fulfill an essential need of neighboring parishes; it was enacted in the spirit of, and almost always in tandem with, prayer. There was inspiration, but not necessarily innovation. The Cavanagh Co., which long enjoyed the distinction of being the industry’s only secular manufacturer, had no competitors with any impetus for change other than that which came from within the Church.


Had production remained the exclusive bailiwick of monastic communities, it is likely that the findings of Vatican II would have prompted some minor changes in Communion-wafer production. Among the guidelines issued by the Church was a directive to “make the bread look more breadlike,” head of production Dan Cavanagh told me. It is a change whose significance may yet be lost on the millions of churchgoers who continue to think of hosts as a form of Styrofoam. Nevertheless, Cavanagh’s more “breadlike” whole-wheat wafer caught on. It became the industry standard, and forced the Poor Clare nuns to follow suit. In fact, the doctrinal changes of Vatican II were only a starting point for innovation. The Cavanagh Co. soon led the way to wholly aesthetic alterations in the host, to marketing campaigns and 1-800 numbers. The ethos of the altar bread industry changed profoundly, which is precisely what the Sisters of St. Clare found so unjust:

And they had the audacity to send samples and a price list to every parish in the United States! We were doomed. Priests started calling to say they preferred the “other” breads. Orders dropped. Our spirits drooped. We held a community meeting and prayed for Divine guidance. Obviously we were no longer physically able to bake breads. Obviously, our breads were no longer wanted, anyway. But even more obvious to us was our need and our desire to keep supplying the churches with breads. Need, because this was our only stable source of income. Desire, because this was our connection with the churches. These were our churches, and packing the altar breads was like a litany: Sacred Heart…San Francisco…San Jose…St James…St John…St Joseph…St Mary…St Paul…St Peter….

Like many of the mom-and-pop business relationships buried and mourned with the rise of the corporate, the ties that bind monastic bakers and “their” churches are not easily reduced to those of sellers and buyers. Historically, the connection of convent bakeries to their clientele bears only an incidental relationship to its economic viability. It is not an industry, Sister Lynn said, but an “an extension of our Eucharistic charism…a way we support the faith life of the Church.” Commerce in the service of religion, rather than Cavanagh’s religion in the service of commerce.

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 “they’re not just getting a product, they’re getting a prayer,” and consider their prayers “part of our promise to our patrons.” They are enriched through prayer themselves.

Another of the prescriptions to emerge from Vatican II was that the hosts be uncontaminated during production. In a fortuitous convergence of doctrine between the Food and Drug Administration and the Catholic Church, the Cavanagh Company has taken “contamination” to mean human touch, and the company maintains a fully-automated production process where employees are forbidden from laying their hands on the wafers. “I feel pretty strongly that the host should not be touched,” Dan said. His view makes it easier to comply with legal guidelines for industrial food production, but it also gives the company something to market. “Our wafers are untouched by human hands,” boasts one promotional brochure. “That gets my dander up,” a Sister in Clyde told the Chicago Tribune: The Sisters’ touch gives what other businesses would call “added value.”


Prior to her vocation, Sister Lynn earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science, and, on coming to Clyde in 2001, she found her skills in high demand at the altar bread facility—which is not, as Dan Cavanagh said of some convents, “a couple of plates and a lot of volunteers.” The Catholic Church requires that hosts be made of wheat in order for communion to be valid, but there is a small number of Catholics who suffer from coeliac disease, a hereditary autoimmune disorder that makes it impossible to digest the protein found in wheat gluten. In the 1980s, people with coeliac disease began to agitate within the Church for alternatives to the wheaten Eucharist, that they might participate more fully in Catholic services; but the Church remained intransigent on the point. A decade later, a group of sisters at the Clyde monastery began a series of unsuccessful experiments with spelt-flour wafers; they were unable to make a host that people with coeliac disease could safely eat and which would be acceptable to the Church. As the years went by, the experiments continued, and the monastery eventually contacted the USDA in order to get more information about gluten and the way flour is processed. Still, the Sisters obtained only mixed results. When Sister Lynn arrived in 2001, she immediately stepped in:

I have a science background, so I was interested from a scientific perspective and started helping out. We eventually made a bread that worked with .01% gluten content [as compared to the 12-14% in normal communion wafers]… The Church said that was aceeptable to them, so we gave the breads to people with coeliac’s [sic] disease and they had no reactions whatsoever.

The low-gluten wafers offered by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration continue to be the only Church-sanctioned alternative for people with coeliac disease. Sister Lynn estimates that half of their customers purchase low-gluten wafers for individual congregants, and many choose to order the rest of their breads from the same source for convenience’s sake.

While other monastic producers have slowly disappeared—from more than 200 in the 1960s to thirty in the mid-1990s—the Sisters in Clyde have plans to expand their operation. With production steady at two million wafers a week, the Clyde Sisters use drill presses and digital scales. Like the Cavanaghs, they have a 1-800 number and a sophisticated website. Even as vocations decline, the Clyde monastery’s seventy-four sisters can continue to compete with the Cavanagh Co. by drawing on a wider pool of expertise from within their community. There is Sister Lynn, the bio-engineer, and another sister who, she said, is “incredibly gifted with computers.”

“I worry that parishes are overlooking the fact that this traditionally has been a ministry of religious communities,” Sister Lynn sighed. By their very nature, cloistered communities are at a disadvantage when competing in sales with secular companies. Selling wafers is an enabler, a necessary distraction; it is not full-time. Yet it is Cavanagh’s sole and driving purpose. Cloistered communities are not as quick to answer their phones, to update their (sometimes non-existent) websites, or to seek out potential customers. Its relative size and success have made the Clyde monastery a leader and benefactor to other cloistered communities who produce altar breads or would like to do so, coming through in a pinch with extra wafers in the event of equipment failures, or even donating used equipment. But because of increasingly high barriers to entry—it would now cost $250,000 to start off as an altar-bread producer—it is unlikely that more religious communities will start producing again. (This state of affairs is quite the opposite of altar bread production in Mexico, where, according to Dan Cavanagh, there’s “a very high population of nuns who do all the baking [of altar breads].”)


In the early 1990s, boxes of mysterious altar breads began to appear in parishes across the US. The wafers feature Cavanagh Co. designs and come in Cavanagh-like packaging, but they are not Cavanagh brand wafers—these wafers are from Poland. It appears that the Cavanagh brand has grown popular and distinctive enough to inspire knockoffs. Several companies are reputed to import them, at a discount between 20 and 30 percent below Cavanagh brand products. The nearest culprit is Ed Bandola, a church-goods supplier based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “You know,” he told me, “it seemed like the right thing to do at the time—at least to be able to offer an alternative in the market to the customer.” This hasn’t hurt Cavanagh’s sales, but it did prompt the company to launch a blanket advertising campaign (cited by the Poor Clare sisters) to churches and distributors across the country, aimed at establishing that their “altar bread is far superior to generic copies.”

Clergy and producers alike are adamant that the bread is just bread prior to consecration (a Cavanagh employee used to joke that there was a priest waiting on the loading dock to bless the wafers as they came off the assembly line), but there is something uncanny about embracing advertising for a product destined to become the body of Christ. Predictably, Cavanagh’s general manager sees it differently: “Advertising our altar bread is a positive thing for Cavanagh Company. We take a lot of pride in putting our family name on a product that will eventually become the body and blood of Jesus.” Brands are a secular innovation. Cloistered communities have tended not to advertise their products, though the Clyde monastery sold 1.5 million wafers to Pope John Paul II for his 1993 visit to Denver. Cavanagh has built a brand that dominates the markets in Australia, England, and Canada.

What makes one wafer superior to the next? In part, it seems unclear, which may explain the reliance of Cavanagh’s advertising on the quality of their packaging—“far superior to all other forms.” There is only so much to explain about a centuries-old product made of wheat and water. (Dan Cavanagh likened the baking to “cooking glue.”) Yet clergy have developed distinct preferences based on theology and aesthetics, and there is no doubt that the Cavanagh company has played a role in reshaping the way that priests, as consumers, perceive and experience Communion wafers. Raymond Rafferty, a Catholic priest in Manhattan, remembered the wafers of his youth as paper-thin and made of white flour, conceding that an acquired preference for whole-wheat wafers would lead him to switch suppliers if the option were not available with his current supplier (a cloistered community in New Jersey). Certainly, the roots of Father Rafferty’s preference are traceable to Vatican II and the desire for a more breadlike wafer, but it was Cavanagh, not cloistered communities, that first reintroduced whole-wheat altar breads.

Cavanagh laid the groundwork for priests to experience their altar-bread purchases as choices rather than simple acquisitions. As the Poor Clare Sisters point out in their scathing critique, Cavanagh Company started the trends that changed the paradigm for Communion wafers and expanded the basis for their evaluation. To blaspheme by analogy, what had been simply “shoes” became Nikes and Reeboks. Canon Miller, who oversees the liturgy at St. John the Divine, also voiced preferences that straddle the line between commerce and theology:

From a practical as well as a theological standpoint—since we do believe in the real presence of Christ in what we distribute and what we receive…I always marvel at churches where people use crumbly bread and leave the altar and there’s nothing but crumbs…I think it’s sloppy. I think wafers are cleaner and more respectful.

Here, then, is a theological rationale for Cavanagh’s patented sealed-edge wafers over the more homemade wafers of religious communities. And the evolution continues: another producer, Communion Source, has patented and trademarked their combination Communion wafer and wine (grape juice) product with the name “Chasid Cup.” The online promotions for the Chasid Cup show the hermetically sealed container with a shot of grape juice and an individually wrapped Communion wafer against a purple background with slick font and a tantalizing picture of grapes reminiscent of juice advertisements. The product is billed as a sanitary and convenient alternative to conventional methods of serving communion, with sales growing, according to one church goods importer, primarily in the Lutheran market.

With the possible exception of the Chasid Cup, it is unlikely that churchgoers receiving wafers in their consecrated form think of them as “products” or “commodities.” Still, this is increasingly what they have become. During church services, wafers are engulfed in enough religious imagery and liturgical context to discourage the realization among congregants that what is now the body of Christ was produced in a factory, bought and sold in a contentious, secular marketplace, and traded hands repeatedly among truck operators and postal workers who had no idea what they were handling—merely “freight as freight,” according to Cavanagh’s shipper—all before arriving on the altar. Maybe the not-yet-realized body of Christ is not so different from that box of “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts riding next to it.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a writer based in Los Angeles. He has contributed to Marketplace, Living on Earth, and The Huffington Post, among others.