Making bread for breaking

Monday, March 28, 2005

CLYDE, Mo. -- Hidden in the quiet countryside of Clyde, Mo., is a thriving industry.

Without a storefront and a fancy marketing campaign, the altar bread produced by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration has stayed in business for the past 95 years, in part because of the sisters' ingenuity and work ethic.

It also could be the unconditional guarantee, which Sister Rita Clair Dohn, manager of the altar bread department, proudly explains.

"Probably the best reason to purchase altar bread is because every night at prayer, the sisters remember these people," Sister Dohn says. "[Their purchase] is a way that supports our contemplative life."

A visit to the altar bread department reveals a high-tech operation. In a former printery, the sisters and 11 civilian employees make the wafers in sterile, white-walled rooms and later ship them to Catholic and Protestant customers as far away as New Zealand and as close as St. Joseph.

A turbo mixer sits in a room of its own, where flour and water are pumped into the steel behemoth through separate pipes.

The batter then is poured into carts and wheeled to the baking machine where it is turned into wafer-thin sheets. In another life, that same machine may have had a different purpose, Sister Dohn says.

"The machine that we now have was made in Austria," she says, "and it's made to bake ice cream cookies or waffle cones or something like that -- any real thin, doughy product."

The baking plates, she adds, were specifically modified for the sisters' use.

After the sheets are softened in a humid cooler overnight, Josie, Abbie and Katie take over. No, they are not sisters or the 11 civilian employees who work there but computerized drill bits, which cut each sheet of dough into concentric circles.

"They have their stubborn, icky moods like a man," jokes Diane Scheiber, who has made communion hosts with the sisters for eight years.

Following the production area tour, Sister Dohn shows the office where the orders come in.

"These are the beautiful faces on the end of customer service," she says, referring to Sister Cathleen Timberlake and Sister Lynn D'Souza, who smile as they look up from their computers.

It was here, roughly 12 years ago, that calls came in for a different kind of bread -- a bread that for some church members was a matter of life and death.

After years of trial and error, a group of determined sisters invented a communion wafer that would be acceptable for Celiac Sprue disease sufferers and in keeping with the church's altar bread regulations.

Gluten-free wafers

Celiac Sprue disease is an immune system disorder that results in damage to the lining of the intestines when foods with gluten are eaten, according to webmd.com.

Glutens are a form of protein found in some grains -- most notably wheat, barley and rye. If gluten is ingested, damage to the intestine makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, especially fat, calcium, iron and folate.

"These people aren't kidding," says Sister Sophia Becker, one of the inventors of the bread, which looks like a flattened pork rind. "They're very ill."

Sara Edwards, a parishioner at Cathedral of St. Joseph, was diagnosed with the disease in December 2003. Before her diagnosis, she had suffered weight loss, exhaustion and abdominal and bodily pain.

"I wasn't getting any nutrients," she says. "My body was basically shutting down. My nails wouldn't grow, my eyelashes wouldn't grow."

"The minute I stopped putting gluten products within my body," she says, "within probably a month, I could start seeing a difference."

As she started to regain her health, Edwards was faced with another problem -- having to excuse herself from communion, the central part of Mass.

"I had to deal with the thoughts of not being able to eat bread, pasta, pizza," she says. "But it really bothered me not being able to go up for communion and take the host."

For several months following her diagnosis, Edwards had decided that she would watch her diet but still take communion.

"Something inside me, I just wanted the host," she says. "So I went ahead and made the decision to go ahead and receive the host. But I didn't tell my doctor."

The ill feeling she felt from that little wafer would be worth it, she thought. But, when she heard of the sisters' creation, it was a godsend.

"When I heard this, I could not believe it," she says. "I am so thrilled they did. That has saved me."

And the sisters feel the same way.

For Sister Dohn and Sister Becker, it helps them feel connected to the body of Christ in more ways than one.

"For me, this ministry is important because I'm reaching the marginalized in the church," she says. "And so to minister to them through these breads is a gift."

"What we do," Sister Dohn adds, "enables people to receive, to become, to share the body of Christ."

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