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Should liturgical items be the work of human hands?

While most communion hosts, candles, and liturgical vestments are now made by large corporate manufacturers, some Catholics are taking matters into their own hands—and ovens.
In the Pews

Julia Erdlen remembers the first time she saw bread baked in her kitchen become the body of Christ at the altar.

“The first time the presider held up the host that I had made, I had the wind knocked out of me,” Erdlen says. “I thought: ‘I made that in my kitchen yesterday.’ ”

In the fall of 2019, Erdlen was a student at the Boston College Graduate School of Theology and Ministry. Soon after she began her first semester, she joined a rotation of bakers who prepare the communion bread for the university’s weekly all-school liturgies. It was a rewarding ministry that took her by surprise.

“It’s not a ministry people really think of,” Erdlen says. “I didn’t meet a single student who said, ‘Oh, I used to bake the bread at my childhood parish or at college.’ It’s not available most places.”

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Catholic theology and the sacrifice of the Mass have gone through drastic reforms and renewals over the past century. Beginning with the liturgical movement in the early 20th century, leading up to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and developing and clarifying over the 50 years since the council, laypeople have gradually taken an increasingly active role in the liturgy.

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) calls for laypeople to “take part in [the rites] fully, actively, and as befits a community.” Erdlen’s ministry of baking bread is one of the ways of actively participating in the liturgy that embodies this Vatican II idea.

Our faith compels us to sanctify the world around us, to incorporate our daily lives, bread, and activity into the sacred liturgy. In a global, mechanized world, lay Catholics who make liturgical items such as sacred art, altars, pews, linens, candles, and communion bread demonstrate a way to participate more deeply in the liturgical action.

Communion bread

Erdlen and several other students committed to baking the bread for roughly 150 faculty, graduate students, staff, and their families every week. Erdlen said it was a prayerful and powerful experience, but their ministry is far from uncontroversial.

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“We discourage parishes from making their own communion bread,” says Laura Bertone, director of the Office of Worship at the Archdiocese of San Francisco. She notes that the lack of adherence to the liturgical norms for eucharistic bread—which makes the sacrament valid but illicit—is the primary issue. “I would never put a recipe online, because it would seem to encourage people,” she says.

St. Clement’s Church in Chicago used to make their own bread for the Eucharist. They discontinued their communion bread-making ministry during the pandemic, which was the “perfect excuse, as we were having a lot of trouble with compliance to the recipe,” says Lori Howard, the associate director of liturgy at St. Clement’s.

“Bread and wine are blessed not only because they are taken from the earth, but also because they are the work of human hands,” writes a group of Catholic and Methodist theologians in “Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory.” The document was the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ seventh round of ecumenical dialogues with the United Methodist Church in 2008, this round on the topic of the Eucharist and ecology.

But many hosts in the United States are not made by human hands. Several liturgical suppliers say most communion bread in the U.S. market is now made by Cavanagh Company, which claims twice on its website that its breads are “untouched by human hands.”

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Out of 20 U.S. church supply stores, 17 stock Cavanagh hosts. Religious congregations of sisters, who traditionally provided for their congregations by making communion, now often serve as distributors to other brands such as Cavanagh. Out of nine congregations, one third now distribute Cavanagh hosts.

The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who were the first community to make a Vatican-approved low-gluten host in 2004, were forced to shut down their operation in 2020 due to the pandemic. Although they once created 50 million hosts a year during the 1940s and ’50s, Benedictine Sister Ruth Elaine Starman says, “We had zero sales from March to August of 2020.” That November, the sisters decided to shut down the operation they had been running since 1910. They now distribute Cavanagh communion bread.

Cavanagh Company declined to comment for this article.

The Cistercian sisters in Wisconsin are one of the rare convents still making eucharistic breads. Their customer base of roughly 250 parishes is mostly in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

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“Altar bread work is much more flexible for our prayer schedule, it’s reflective and meditative and quiet, and it’s very conducive to praying and reflecting on what these breads are going to become, who is our spouse as consecrated religious. It’s a privilege,” says Sister Marie Pierre, who has lived in the Cistercian community for 16 years.

But the process is not at all as idyllic as kneading a loaf of bread in a quiet kitchen. It involves 12-gallon mixers, carousel bakers, steam rooms, and handling 60 sheets of bread at a time, and each sheet can make up to 99 congregation-sized hosts. This process has developed over several centuries since monastic communities began making communion bread in the Middle Ages. Thin wafers first began to appear around the turn of the millennium, as monastics began to prepare the breads, which became more stylized and similar to our contemporary hosts.

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Now, instead of providing the materials of the liturgy, faithful provide money in the collection for the church to purchase those goods, notes James Starke, liturgical theologian at Saint Mary’s Seminary and University—a reflection of a broader culture of exchange.

“The influence of consumerism can’t be neglected,” Starke says. “We nourish ourselves on food from nowhere and dress ourselves in clothes made by no one.”

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Communion bread is made on machines rather than in a religious or parish community. Starke says that the manufactured nature of much of the liturgical items used in Mass is cause for concern and reflection.

“That’s intimately bound up in consumerist society and culture,” he says. “Our bread, wine, oil, vestments, and linens are being made by corporations.”

A family business

Although many parishioners imagine religious sisters stitching altar linens and monks manufacturing candles, lay-run companies supply many of the liturgical goods to local Catholic churches.

CM Almy and Sons, a church goods store based out of Maine, began as a lone tailor working near Union Square in New York City in 1892. Clarence Mortimer Almy and his son made vestments for Episcopal priests in Manhattan. To this day, CM Almy makes vestments and serves a healthy Episcopal customer base, but about 20 percent of their customers are Catholic, and they offer a variety of church goods: candelabra, palms for Palm Sunday, choir robes, crosses, and communion bread.

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In 1952, Tom Fendler and his uncle took over the family business from their father, Donald Fendler, who had taken over the business for his cousin Clarence during the Great Depression. Tom Fendler brought the manufacturing portion of the business up to a family property in Maine in the early 1950s.

During the post-Vatican II years in the 1960s, their business took off, as Episcopal and Lutheran denominations also reformed their liturgies. One key component of their growth was catalogs they could mail directly to rectories, parish offices, and churches. They developed a direct-to-consumer model and advertised their vestments in a showroom off Fifth Avenue in New York City. Current president Stephen Fendler says that non-Catholic denominations did not have the same network of local church supply stores that Catholics had.

CM Almy supplied their made-in-Maine vestments and imported metalware goods to other church supply stores through their wholesale department, although that department was discontinued in 1972. In 1986, Stephen Fendler and his brother bought the business from their father.

Today, CM Almy’s sales are under $20 million a year. “Sales were wildly fluctuating because of COVID-19,” says Fendler. “The depths of COVID—when people were only attending church virtually—were definitely tough for our business.” Shifts in the population and in church attendance are also affecting CM Almy. “The customer base is declining in all of the denominations we serve,” Fendler says.

One of CM Almy’s new products that has sold remarkably well in the United States is their liquid candles. CM Almy invented a refillable container that could be filled with canisters of a liquid fuel such as oil. Fendler says these have been growing in popularity over the past 30 years.

“They’re fake”

But reusable faux candles are a bête noire for Laura Bertone, the director of the Office of Worship at the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“We [liturgists] get a little fussy about these things,” she says.

Parishes will often try to be practical and cost effective and buy candle-shaped plastic containers for oil or paraffin wick burners. But, Bertone says, it’s important that candles are made of beeswax.

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“Many of my parishes use the cylinder candles,” Bertone says, noting that they interpret the word candle to be oil made of beeswax and a burning wick. “But that’s not the point,” she adds. The matter at hand, she says, is one of authenticity.

“That’s not a candle. No matter how good they are, they’re not real. They’re fake,” Bertone says. Part of liturgical guidelines are about protecting the genuine, authentic nature of the symbols and sacramentals used. Another concern is with flattening the dimensions of liturgical experience. Although digital natives might focus entirely on the visual, the liturgy, Bertone notes, is supposed to be a full sensory experience. An oil-burning candle doesn’t have the same smell, she says. Something’s missing without the beeswax candle flickering and dripping in a draft.

And even simple objects in the liturgy can bear witness to the paschal mystery of Christ’s self-sacrifice.

“A candle spends itself as it is being used. That burning up of itself and spending of its very self to create life reminds us of Christ,” says Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Williamson notes that even in expenses that seem extravagant or impractical—such as buying real flowers for the altar instead of using satin or plastic flowers—the mystery of death for the sake of love is obvious. “Yes, flowers die, but that’s the paschal mystery,” he says.

Williamson emphasizes that liturgical items are not supposed to be cheap or simulacrum. “Our sacramental theology calls for genuine items, items made by hands,” he says. “God uses natural things, things of God’s own creation—stone, oil, bread—to encounter us. This is the basis of sacramental theology—the items themselves are sacramental because they become vehicles for encountering God.”

Another concern, both liturgists note, is ensuring the quality of the items used. “You want to give the best to God—you don’t have tallow candles; you have beautiful beeswax. You don’t use burlap; you have beautiful linen,” Bertone says. “You want to source the best and give the best to God.”

Make with our hands a throne

The congregation of Sacred Heart Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado got an opportunity to meet the maker of their altar when local carpenter Geoffrey Keating helped renovate their church.

Geoffrey Keating, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, got pulled into planning meetings for the renovation several years ago. According to Keating, “bad renovation and restorations” had been done to the 1922 Spanish mission-style church. The parish wanted to take the opportunity to address some of the architectural concerns while making practical renovations such as adding an HVAC system. Although his part in the renovation dealt with aesthetics, the beauty of the space was far from a surface concern for the theologically trained Keating.

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“Once people feel it, they see the importance of beauty,” says Keating. He grew up in suburban churches that looked like meeting halls or, in his words, DMVs. But when studying abroad in London he encountered the haunting, unfinished splendor of Westminster Cathedral—the Catholic counterpart to the grand Anglican Westminster Abbey. He recalled seeing the marble columns rise far above his head and disappear into the darkness of the unfinished vault. “I feel something greater than me in these churches,” he says.

Keating notes an ironic devaluing of material beauty by a materialistic culture. He is not alone in finding that the church should challenge market values.

“Consumer culture can turn anything into a commodity, that is, into something that can be bought and sold,” writes theologian William Cavanaugh, in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans). The second chapter of Cavanaugh’s book examines the ways in which the markets of consumerism divorce us from a eucharistic and sacramental worldview: “Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the world around us that is deeply formative.”

Cavanaugh writes that consumerism reduces a community to consumers, and acts of community are disembodied acts of consumption. But the liturgy should reveal us as homo creator, made in the image of God the creator. Simple actions, he suggests, such as making music together or making our own bread, can reconnect us to the simplicity of living on the Earth and in the richness of shared communities of production.

Keating got into the full-time furniture-making and carpentry business after leaving a doctoral program in moral theology.

“I started doing woodworking for fun to keep my sanity—to do something with my hands—during graduate school,” Keating says, speaking over the telephone while at work on a kitchen project for a client. “I found it was a way better fit for me.”

At Sacred Heart, he partnered with an architect, Elizabeth LaDuke, to refurbish the pews, altar rail, altar, sanctuary, and chandelier. They coordinated with local artisans, who made hand-blown glass and created the tabernacle. Keating says that the whole parish was excited by the project, which cost almost $3 million, was completed in 2018, and is already paid off.

Keating says the biggest obstacle to more renovations like this happening in local churches is that the church has forgotten that art and beauty are part of its ministry and mission. “There’s not a will in general for beautiful things anymore,” he says. He compared the amount of money clients will spend on redoing a functional space in their home, such as a kitchen, to churches balking at spending a few thousand dollars on a painting.

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Real presence

Not only do liturgical rubrics demand reality, but the world yearns for it, says Lucas Briola, a theology professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

“Especially after COVID, there is a desire to return to the real,” Briola says.

“The Eucharist—the real presence—is about engaging the real world and engaging the world more deeply. God chose to reach our depths in a fragment of matter,” he says, quoting Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). Briola connects this eucharistic vision to the integral ecology Pope Francis explores in Laudato Si’. The liturgy is not only about communion with God, but with our neighbor, and, Briola emphasizes, all of creation.

“The liturgical prayers are full of creation imagery and the imagery of creation praising God is all in the texts,” Briola says. Thus, our celebration of the Eucharist should make us examine our approach to the material world.

“Do we engage creation in ways that actually glorify God? Do we allow creation to act in the way that God intended? Do we act in ways that respect the dignity of creation and the way that God sees creation? Do we understand the ecological context of the things we engage?” he asks.

Ultimately, Briola says, a commitment to sacramentality and a eucharistic way of life should make us troubled by living in a world or worshipping in a church where much of what we’re surrounded by is manufactured far away across distant supply chains. “That’s not an ideal situation,” he says.

Supply chain may not be the 2022 word of the year, but it has been a ubiquitous phrase of the pandemic-era United States. Briola notes that the eucharistic prayer also includes a “liturgical supply chain.”

“ ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.’ At some level that can seem like a throwaway line, but all those processes that go into the things that we use, the things that we eat, are brought into our eucharistic sacrifice,” Briola says. “We can’t go through life unaware of those processes.”

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Briola argues that the Eucharist should prompt us to ask: Where does our food come from? Where do our clothes come from? “Do they foster communion with creation and communion with other people? Or do they take advantage of people? And do they devastate creation?” he asks.

In 2008, predating Laudato Si’ by several years, the Methodist and Catholic dialogue noted that the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist, should challenge materialistic ways of looking at the world.

“The theology that underlies our celebration of the Eucharist is integrally related to our ecological stewardship of God’s earth. The Eucharist does not take us out of the world. Rather our celebration of the Eucharist touches the heart of what it means to live on this earth,” theologians write in “Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory.” They note that the Eucharist illuminates what Francis would call an integral ecology—a web of belonging and mutual responsibility and care. The sacrament has a fundamentally ethical dimension, and it “shapes how we live the Christian life.”

For Briola, not only does using local items ensure we can answer those questions in good conscience, but sourcing our items locally makes us conscious of the fact that we are not individual consumers in a global supply chain. Rather, we are embedded in a eucharistic community, cultivating care for creation and one another in our own local context.

“We’re reminded of that fact that there is no eucharistic celebration apart from this community around me,” he says.


This article also appears in the April 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 4, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Sister Jane Heschmeyer prepares low-gluten communion bread for the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri (2019). Courtesy of Sister Ruth Starman, O.S.B.

About the author

Renée Roden

Renée Roden is a writer and Catholic Worker based in Chicago.

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