There is a common misconception that priests and Catholics with an intolerance to gluten can use “gluten free” hosts, while in reality the Vatican has, since 1995, mandated that Communion hosts must contain at least some gluten.
As wheat bread is the matter of the sacrament, the Vatican stated in 2003 that low-gluten hosts are acceptable so long as “they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of bread.”
The typical recipe for a Communion host includes only wheat flour and water. The wheat used in low-gluten hosts has had the gluten - which holds the bread together - removed by a process of milling. As a result, the sisters’ first attempts at creating a low-gluten host were extremely difficult, and the hosts were too hard to actually eat.
It took over ten years of experimentation for the sisters to develop the right recipe. Sister Lynn D’Souza joined the effort in 1999, and put her degree in biochemistry to good use.
Finally, the process benefitted from the help of the Holy Spirit.
“We were done with an experiment for the day, and kind of had a little batter left on the spoon, so we flicked it onto the waffle iron, and forgot about it and went and washed dishes,” Sister Jane Heshmeyer, who works in the altar bread department, recalled.
“We opened [the waffle iron] up and there was a lacy looking edible thing. So we ate it right away and forgot how we got there, but the Holy Spirit helped us get back to that.”
The sisters had the hosts tested in a lab for their gluten content, and also asked several volunteers with celiac disease to eat the hosts and report any adverse effects. The scientists found that the hosts contained just .001% gluten, low enough to be safe for most people with celiac disease.
The Vatican approved the sisters’ low-gluten bread for Communion in 2003. Before the pandemic, the sisters produced about 82,000 individual low-gluten hosts per month, on average.
Sister Ruth said the current demand for low-gluten hosts is about two-thirds of normal - higher than the demand for the sisters' altar bread overall. Today, sisters from the abbey make up the entire staff producing the low-gluten hosts.
Before the pandemic, Cavanagh Altar Breads - a large secular corporation headquartered in Rhode Island, had steadily consumed the lion’s share of the market for Catholic Communion hosts.
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In addition to having a far greater production capacity than any one religious order, their hosts are different from the ones made by hand; the wafers have a sealed edge, which some priests prefer because they are less likely to produce crumbs.
Due to the large drop in their capacity for in-house production, Sister Ruth said the sisters have begun receiving shipments of altar breads from Cavanaugh once a week, which they then repackage and resell.
Despite the hit to the abbey's income, Sister Ruth said the abbey remains financially sound thanks to donors, as well as to the sisters’ secondary business of selling homemade lotion, candles, and soap.
"There's been a drop in demand for altar breads over the years," she said, adding that she hopes people start returning to Mass to receive the sacraments, because "it's just not the same watching on TV."