Catholic priest giving holy communion. (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

The Surprisingly Cutthroat Business of Communion Crackers

Cavanagh Altar Breads is squeezing nuns out of the sacramental wafer game with business savvy and advanced technology.

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Apr 14 2017, 8:53pm

Catholic priest giving holy communion. (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

For Catholics, hosts are potent manifestations of faith. The crackers consumed during Communion are part of a ritual that goes all the way back to the Last Supper. Once blessed, these bits of altar bread are believed to become the body of Jesus, or at least carry his divine essence.

But for all their spiritual resonance, these wafers are also totally mundane. They're made simply by heating unleavened flour and water between two iron plates. And they're so ubiquitous that most Catholics never even question their origins—they seem to just magically appear on the altar.

In reality, though, if you're an American Catholic, your communion host likely comes from Cavanagh Altar Breads, a secular, industrial baker.

Based out of Greenville, Rhode Island, the company specializes in mass-produced sacramental wafers. Although they make altar breads for many Christian denominations, they dominate the Roman Catholic Mass market, churning out (according to one oft-reported figure) up to 80 percent of the hosts used by the Church in the US.

It might strike some as odd that intimate, holy objects like sacramental wafers would be mass-produced in a secular facility. Until the late 20th century, priests, members of a parish, or nuns prepared hosts for their community or nearby churches. Cavanagh didn't come into the picture in the US until around 1943, when a Jesuit priest visited nuns making wafers in the Greenville area. He felt their conditions and equipment were miserable, so he asked a local Catholic inventor, John Cavanagh Sr., to help the sisters out. In his life, Cavanagh had developed several new devices, including a patented mechanical stapler and a roofing hammer. To help the nuns of Greenville, he worked alongside his sons to adapt waffle irons and humidifiers to make hosts. Then he created special host-making machines. Three years later, local clergy permitted the Cavanagh family to produce their own altar breads, ostensibly to help the sisters meet expanding regional demand.

For years, Cavanagh just served the New England Catholic community—until the Vatican II overhauled Catholic life in 1962, specifically voiding some old recipes by mandating that hosts be thicker and have a breadier flavor. Its wider adjustments also expanded the market for hosts by making changes that kept Baby Boomers from leaving the Church and helped revive communion rituals in some Protestant communities, who use hosts with different ingredients, shapes, or sizes than Catholics. Protestants didn't have monastic communities to produce hosts for them, while existing capacity couldn't keep up with the expanding Catholic market.

Around this time, the idea of locking yourself away for life in devotion to God was losing some of its appeal and social utility. According to Sister Ruth Starman of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, an order or official grouping of nuns in Clyde, Missouri, that still makes altar breads, American nuns started getting older and less numerous. As orders fully disbanded or became too small and frail to handle the work of making altar breads, the number of American host-baking monastic orders dropped from a couple hundred in the 1960s to a few dozen in the 1990s. Closing nun orders shifted their customers to other groups of nuns. But according to Starman, "Many communities just didn't have the sisters to do the work."

Cavanagh used its generous capacity to supply low-cost breads in massive quantities to nuns who could package and sell them to local parishes for income. As of 2012, Rowan Moore Gerety, writing in the online religious magazine Killing the Buddha, reported that this distribution mechanism accounted for about 70 percent of Cavanagh's host sales. 

Eleven cloistered Carmelite nuns baking 300,000 communion wafer breads for Pope John Paul II's giant Mass in San Antonio. Photo by Bettmann / Contributor

Orders like the Passionist Nuns of Ellisville, Missouri, reportedly buy enough from Cavanagh to supply the parishes they work with, but they still make some breads as spiritual work on the side. Cavanagh was also a logical fit to provide bulk supplies to religious goods chain stores that popped up to service Protestant and Catholic communities, like CM Almy or LifeWay. "With the decline of local convents to buy bread from," explained Starman, "it's easier to go to the local religious goods store to purchase breads than have them shipped from a distant community… shipping costs rising has not helped [nuns]."

Starman's order continued producing altar breads—rather than becoming a Cavanagh distributor—because, as she told me, it's what they've done since 1910 and fits well with their ideals. "Contemplative religious communities need an income producing work that is consistent with their life of enclosure and prayer," she explained. "Altar bread production is one of the most perfect works."

But the orders that stay in the business now have to compete with a secular firm that brought mainstream business savvy into a holy space. Cavanagh developed a proprietary flour blend, a process to seal the wafer edges to prevent crumbs, and automation that allowed batches to be "untouched by human hands," a quality they started to promote in ads and press. They produce wafers in cutting edge (for the industry) machines capable of embossing them with little symbols and aggressively market them to churches. "These points have successfully sold the Cavanagh bread over those simpler, less showy packaged breads produced by contemplative religious communities," said Starman. It also can't hurt that they're able to produce for Protestants in dedicated machines and sell wafers not just to religious organizations, but also to people who eat hosts as snacks, which is apparently a thing in Quebec.

Some altar bread producers, like the Poor Clare Nuns of Bernham, Texas, were reportedly driven out of business by what they called "that big monstrous secular competition." Members of that now-defunct order were apparently most offended by Cavanagh's marketing bids. Gerety noted that before the Poor Clare Nuns went under, their website carried a message that explained they'd ended their baking after Cavanagh "had the audacity to send samples and a price list to every parish in the United States… Priests started calling to say they preferred the 'other' breads… Obviously, our breads were no longer wanted."

Even existing orders bristle at the contents of Cavanagh's marketing, which they seem to see as redefining the meaning of communion hosts in their financial favor. Sister Rita Dohn, also of Starman's order, told the Chicago Tribune in 1999 that marketing around the fact that the company's wafers were untouched by human hands got her "dander up," since she sees the human work and prayer that go into their hosts as integral to their value.

Most of the few orders that still make altar breads serve one or two hundred parishes each and produce about 100,000 wafers a month. Starman's order leads the pack, having acquired industrial equipment, hired lay staff to work with the few sisters, and invested in marketing, web, and sales capabilities to compete with Cavanagh in the 1990s. Prayer and holy production are their (and most surviving nun operations') main selling points, while established relationships are their lifeblood.

As the largest religious supplier left in America, Starman's order has tried to put on seminars to lend advice to other communities of nuns who still want to make bread. And according to Starman, they "began producing breads for communities that could no longer do so and thus helped them and ourselves distribute altar breads" to stay in business, kind of like Cavanagh. They make up to eight million wafers a month—while Cavanagh can produce up to 25 million a week with a similar sized staff. 

Still, as Starman explained, the greatest challenge to the US market for altar breads isn't competition from secular wafer producers or the challenge of technological advance or innovation. It's a slow decline in the size and number of parishes. "Many young Catholics don't go to church as often and regularly as previous generations," said Starman. "Or they leave the church altogether."

Of course, that's a bigger problem for Starman and her sisters than it is for Cavanagh.

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