Take this bread

waferI receive Communion at my church at least once a week and yet I have never contemplated where my congregation gets our bread and wine. So I was fascinated by a light feature in the Boston Globe about a local company that makes Communion wafers.

The Cavanagh Company has an 80 percent market share in the United States, supplying most of the wafers for Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran congregations. A box of 1,000 standard wafers sells retail at $12 or more, about twice the wholesale price:

In its 62d year of operation, the Cavanagh family business is the nation’s leading supplier of Communion wafers. Their commercial bakery in this northern Rhode Island town runs 24 hours a day to make about 25 million wafers a week, primarily for Catholics, but for other denominations as well.

The company’s manufacturing floor is a humming assembly line of weird, Willie Wonka-like machines. Contraptions custom-built by the Cavanaghs will thud, click sharply, and whoosh at odd intervals, like the percussion section of a highly experimental jazz band.

The article describes the generations of Cavanaghs who have worked at the company:

The company was founded in the 1940s by John F. Cavanagh, an inventor who registered more than 100 patents, and his sons John Jr. and Paul, a pair of liturgical artists who donated their work to churches and religious organizations.

The company employs 36 full-time people making altar bread. The family is Roman Catholic, “but you certainly don’t have to be Catholic to work here,” said Brian [Cavanagh, CEO]. “It’s a manufacturing company. There’s no fake reverence for the product.” Until the wafers are used by a priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, “it’s just bread,” he said.

We learn about what’s in the wafers and the manufacturing process is described in great and colorful detail — even what happens to the chaff left over when the wafers are cut. It’s just a great local story about one aspect of religious life we don’t hear about too often.

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  • http://www.DyspepsiaGeneration.com Tim of Angle

    Orthodox Christians use leavened bread for communion, so prosphora are typically baked by local parishioners rather than obtained from a commercial vendor. I did so for my parish for a couple of years, until I passed my seals on to a lady who wanted to take it on as her contribution to the parish. The article in Wikipedia [prosphora] is quite informative.

  • Stephen A.

    Interesting article. I was struck by how much of the family “secret” was revealed here about the baking process, given that they are the “Microsoft of altar bread,” which was a funny line, BTW.

    The reporter sure got a lot out of them, and not just the secret recipe. I wonder if the family really is as nonchalant about the service they provide (even with children named John and Paul.) They seem to have gone out of their way to be “secular” and not care about the product when speaking about it. When religious people are interviewed sometimes, they tend to try to sound “non-religious” or “hip” so as not to be labeled as a square religious type.

    Maybe they really were hip in this case, but still, I think it’s a phenomenon nonetheless.

    I seem to remember a place being featured in the media in which the factory personnel were a bit more reverent about the process, and actually prayed over the dough, etc. Anyone remember that? Maybe it was a small facility or a convent or something.

    BTW, the comment section of that article has some interesting discussion.

  • franksta

    The penultimate paragraph was a hoot for me. I spent 15 years as a Southern Baptist before coming back to Catholicism, and I appreciated the bit about the Cavanagh’s Baptist-marketed Lord’s Supper “soup crackers”–I’ve always thought of them that way, too, though I usually called them “pellets”!

  • Bill

    Stephen A.

    I am not much of a baker, but I am a manufacturing guy. This is at least as much manufacturing as it is baking. The secret is not in what ingredients are required to make a piece of bread, the secret is more how one regularly and reliably produces millions of packaged stacks of wafers.

    As to the perceived nonchalance: some years ago I spent a good bit of time in the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. The coins were around us by the tens of millions and were not regarded any differently than the parts coming of the press in any other stamping operations. The ones that fell onto the floor were swept up and tossed in the scrap bin. Only after they pass through the Federal Reserve do they become legal tender. In the same way, I would think it is just bread to the baker. The transformation has nothing to do with the Cavanagh Co.

  • Therese Z

    I always thought nuns made most of the communion hosts in the US. Shoot.

  • Michael V

    Well, who knows what the CEO’s attitude really is. But, following on Bill’s last line, it seems to me more reverent to be a bit caviler about the bread itself. The line “until the wafer is used by a priest in the celebration of the Eucharist” kind of points to that, for me. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s “to hell with it” line.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It was a good article overall. But many Catholics prefer the word “hosts” to refer to the communion “wafer.” I noticed in the article a nun interviewed used the word “host” not “wafer” in her quoted comments. I guess that here in New England the word “wafer” is too reminiscent for many of NECCO candy wafers that we all grew up on.

  • Julia

    Boy, I hadn’t thought about NECCO wafers in 50 years. That’s what my brothers used when playing “Mass”.
    We always called the real thing at church “hosts”.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think host is definitely a better word for the consecrated wafer.

  • FW Ken

    Before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, Communion wafers were shiny white, much thinner than they are now, and designed to dissolve on the tongue,

    Except, of course, when they stuck to the roof of your mouth and you nearly choked. The joke back then was something like: I can believe it’s the Body of Christ; what I don’t believe is that it’s bread.

    Of course it being the Globe, they had to work in the sex scandal. Predictable, but sad to go negative in an otherwise delightful article.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Yeah! What did the sex scandal have to do with this. Might as well have brought up the Inquisition.

  • Stoo

    What did the sex scandal have to do with this.

    Affecting the company’s sales, as the article mentions pretty clearly.

  • R.S.Newark

    People are far too kind to the anticatholic and patronizing Boston Globe, or as it’s called around here “glob”, their effort is and should be very clear known.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    This is a very interesting story for a couple of reasons not illuminated in the comments so far. And it is that this company employs 30+ people, has an 80% U.S. market share and the product sells for a penny. Gum is not that inexpensive, not any more.

    But imagine also that the sales are enough to continue in business for 60+ years and you arrive at the conclusion that a whole lot of people in this country are celebrating the Eucharist. And that’s a glass is half full ending to the story if I ever heard one.

    On a companion theme, it’s fun to explore the history of the sacramental wine makers, especially during Prohibition in the U.S. [for those who might have failed history -- you're not alone, ISI reports 51% don't have civic literacy -- "Prohibition" was a time when "spirits" were legally discouraged by the federal government -- think trans fats].

    Anyway, the Gallo family is reported to have snuck many gallons out the back door for secular purposes. All of which confirms: Man does not live by bread alone.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA
  • Chris Bolinger

    To me, the best thing about the article is its use of quotes. Example:

    The wafers and the chaff left over from the cut are spun are in perforated tubes, which shake the chaff into waste barrels. A local pig farmer feeds the waste to his hogs.

    “Holy pigs, we call them,” said Luke.

  • Raphael Hythloday

    Amazing. Cavanaugh also dominates the Australian market. The breads are distributed in Australia by Tarrawarra Abbey. http://www.eucharisticbreads.com.au/