Sr. Gisele Goguen, left, and Sr. Juliet Onuoha prepare an order of communion hosts for a parish. Photos courtesy Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood

Making Communion hosts stays true to sisters’ adoration of Eucharist

  • January 10, 2022

Producing communion bread has been an integral part of the ministry of the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood in Canada for over 100 years, but just how the hosts are made remains a mystery to many.

“It comes down from Heaven like manna,” joked Sr. Linda Thompson, Generalate of the community of sisters at their motherhouse in London, Ont. “I was reflecting how appropriate it is to share the altar bread process at this time of year. Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread.’ ”

Thompson spent many decades at the sisters’ Hamilton monastery where the bread is produced and has seen the transition from a very manual traditional preparation to the more automated process that exists today, with skilled lay people operating the machinery. The sisters remain directly involved in the process, from oversight of production, booking orders and accounting.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the process is that altar breads today are made of a simple mixture of wheat flour and water — a recipe the Church asks the sisters to remain faithful to in keeping with the Jewish tradition of unleavened bread. In cases where some might have trouble digesting the fibre in wheat flour, white flour is permitted.

Thompson remembers as a young postulate in the 1960s when the communion hosts were made at each of the order’s individual monasteries, instead of a central production location. Thinly pouring the pancake-like mixture to bake, she says in those days they even found spiritual ways to keep track of cook time. 

“We used to put it on with a ladle and you said maybe two Hail Mary’s to cook it,” recalled Thompson. “For us, it is a spiritual process. Even as a factory process, we are foreseeing what this is going to become. It’s going to become the Body of the Lord.”

In the old days each monastery made the bread for its own diocese using small wafer bakers, until 1983 when the new altar bread department was created in Hamilton. In 1992, the Hamilton facility was expanded to include extra space for cutters, a flour room and areas designated for baking, hydration, cutting the wafers, packaging and shipping. The transition to automation involved a long learning curve which, out of honour for the Body of the Lord, continues to be upgraded and refined as needed to make sure the product is ideal and process efficient.

The transition to highly technical equipment is how the sisters have been able to continue this ministry for the Church. Wheat flour is mixed in a 60-litre cylinder with several batters made each day depending on demand. The 15- x 11-inch wafer sheets are baked on an automatic conveyor baker. They exit the baker and sit on a cooling arch before stacking so they don’t stick together. The sheets are moistened so they can be fed into the cutter and made into the one-and-a-half inch hosts congregants receive at Mass.

Drying of the hosts is done in a heated tunnel before being hand inspected for defects on a screened conveyor. 

Determined to minimize waste, the extra bits left after the wafers are cut are given to a local farmer for animal feed. In the cold of winter sometimes they put some of the scraps out for the deer in the back yard.

In addition to creating the small individual wafers, the process also makes larger priest size and concelebration size wafers for those sharing in the main altar bread.

Through all the changes, the sisters make sure spirituality remains key to the process. Sr. Gisele Goguen, general superior at the London monastery, worked at the Hamilton site from 2010 for six years as the treasurer and five years as superior. While there she would go into the bread production department daily to check on staff and see how they were doing. The sisters are intentional about making themselves available for general social connection and prayer whenever there is a need. Each sister spends a half-hour of personal adoration daily to pray for the needs of the world, the Church and the particular needs of those who contact them.

“I think that even though we have lay employees that are working there, I think we’ve been able to minister to them of our way of life, of our appreciation of the precious blood and Body of Christ,” said Goguen.

“(Staff) always say that they really
want to be sure they can keep the ‘sister presence,’ ” said Thompson. “They want to know that they’re not just out there by themselves. They know they’re working for us and they want to relate with us.”

Working Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., the main baker has reported the process produces roughly one million hosts a month, making the sisters the largest producer of altar bread in Canada. The sisters’ clients are dioceses across the nation, reaching as far north as Nunavut.

Since COVID-19, production has slowed to two days a week but for the Christmas season was up to three, even four days as demand increased.

Throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic, staff, many of whom have been with the sisters for decades, have remained faithful to the monastery.

“They’re long-term employees, which says a lot in itself,” said Thompson. “They stayed so loyal. They often will say, you know, ‘It’s hard work, yes. We go home tired, but we feel we’re persons. We’re respected.’ ”

In the production room is a sign with a quote from the eucharistic prayer that reads, “Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” That and a photo depicting Christ that staff once requested be put in the production room reflect the honour and appreciation for the work.

Through all of the changes over the years, the sisters have been able to remain true to their spiritual intentions in producing altar breads. They keep in close contact with their parishes and are able to customize orders to suit a special spiritual intention or a dietary need. Their gluten-free wafers are purchased from the Benedictine Sisters in the U.S. and are available to parishes upon request.

After over a century as part of their ministry, the sisters are grateful they are able to continue the Church’s service of altar bread production in innovative ways.

“Often when priests will call for altar breads, they’ll say, you know, ‘By the way we have this really important intention for our parish,’ ” said Thompson. “So it really suits what we’re about. We’re a community of prayer. A company can make altar breads but it does suit us because of our eucharistic focus. We’re Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, so the adoration of the Eucharist is central to our life. Producing altar breads fits in perfectly.” 

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