Baking Nuns



BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: There is a group of Benedictine nuns in Missouri who bake and sell millions of Communion wafers, small and large. But some would-be communicants complained that they are allergic to the gluten in the wheat in the nun’s wafers — the hosts, as they are known. So they could not receive Communion. For the sisters that was a challenge, as Betty Rollin reports.

BETTY ROLLIN: They are the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. They live in Clyde, Missouri, a remote — a very remote — part of the state, and what they do is pray.

Sister LYNN D’SOUZA: Our main work is prayer. That is what we see as our mission for the Church, for the world: to pray for the needs of people of all places of all times.

ROLLIN: They pray together five times a day, and they pray alone two-and-a-half hours a day. But that’s not all they do. The mission of the Benedictines is both to pray and to work. These sisters’ work is to bake, and they’ve been baking for nearly 100 years. Today, they are the largest religious producers of Communion wafers, shipping two million wafers a week.

Sister LYNN D’SOUZA: We as Catholics believe in the true presence of Christ in the Communion wafer, in the
wine that we use at Eucharist. In the Gospel, Jesus says those who eat my flesh and drink my blood dwell in me and I dwell in them. To receive the wafer and to receive the wine is integral to the faith life of most Catholics.

ROLLIN: But a problem arose when the sisters began to hear from some Catholic parishioners who couldn’t receive the all-important sacrament of Communion because the wafers contained wheat. They had celiac disease, a disorder which makes the gluten contained in wheat undigestable.

Sister JANE HESCHMEYER: I was working in the customer service department in the early ’90s and a woman called in and said, “Do you make hosts that have no gluten in them because I’m intolerant to gluten and I need that?” I’d never heard that before, and we certainly didn’t, because wheat has gluten in it, and that was that.

Sr. D’SOUZA: The Catholic Church requires that breads used at Eucharist contain some wheat, and this is in keeping with the tradition of the Church. It’s believed that’s what Jesus used at the Last Supper.

So the Catholic Church is saying we need a wheat bread to be used. People with celiac disease are saying, “We need a bread that has no gluten in it.” Wheat equals gluten pretty much, so that was the dilemma we were working with.

Sr. HESCHMEYER: And gradually more and more calls started coming in. So I started doing research and talked to technicians, bakers, lawyers, doctors, people who couldn’t tolerate gluten, to try to find out everything I could about it.

ROLLIN: Years later, in 1999, Sister Lynn, newly arrived at the monastery after receiving a degree in biochemistry, joined the baking effort.

Sr. D’SOUZA: I just like happened to cross Sister Jane in the kitchen one afternoon working on these breads, putting stuff together. Just because I have somewhat of a scientific background, it intrigued me as a science project-type thing. It wasn’t that I had high lofty ambitions of providing someone’s need. I just thought, oh, this is a science experiment.

ROLLIN: Given the Church’s insistence that wheat had to be in the wafer, they thought that wheat starch might be a solution, since most of the gluten is removed.

Sr. HESCHMEYER: What the scientists were telling us what we were trying to do was impossible. If you add wheat starch and water you get glue. Or if you bake it, it gets very hard, which is what we found out. It was a certain intrigue for me when they said it was impossible.

I said, “Oh, that’s a challenge!” And so, if the Holy Spirit was asking people to ask us to do it, the Holy Spirit had something in mind. There was just something in me that just said go with this thing — we could do it — although I had no idea that 12 years later I would still be doing it or trying to do it.

ROLLIN: A supporter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took their plight to — where else — the Vatican.

Sister HESCHMEYER: He had been in Rome, and when he came back he said he had just talked to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict, and said that Cardinal Ratzinger said if the sisters in Clyde can produce this bread, we will fully support it.

ROLLIN: With that encouragement and armed with two different kinds of wheat starch supplied by the bishops, the nuns gave it one last try.

Sister HESCHMEYER: We decided to try mixing both of those together with some water, and what we came up with was like sticky goo. It stuck to our fingers.

Sr. D’SOUZA: I mean, really, it’s like we could not get it off the spoons. We tried to scrape it off the spoon to the finger. It stuck on our fingers. It was such a mess. We put a blob of it on the waffle irons we were using, and we went to clean up. We said this batch isn’t working. We are just going to start over and try something else. We had cleaned up everything, and we left some of the dough on the waffle iron, and we opened up the waffle iron and –


Sr. D’SOUZA: Voila! There was a bread.

Sr. HESCHMEYER: It was not pretty. It was a very interesting looking little bread on the plate, but it had withstood the baking process. It was intact. It was not gooey. It didn’t stick to the plate. We picked it up. I mean, for us it was beautiful

Sr. D’SOUZA: Yes

Sr. HESCHMEYER: We knew this bread had potential.

Sr. D’SOUZA: Our first reaction was to eat it.

Sr. HESCHMEYER: Yes, we have to try this, and it tasted delicious. It was light and crisp. It was just what we were looking for, we hoped.

ROLLIN: So what did that feel like?

Sr. HESCHMEYER: It was wonderful.

Sr. D’SOUZA: It was. I can see in hindsight that we were being used by God. You know, we were God’s hands, God’s instrument, and when I look back on it, I’m kind of awed.

CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE (speaking to Sr. D’Souza): And Sister, I left you all the low-gluten orders, and I think there are five new accounts that we’ve gotten today.

Sr. D’SOUZA: Oh my gosh! All right. It must be because of Easter.

ROLLIN: It is peak season for wafer production, both for the wheat variety and the now thriving low-gluten specialty. Business is booming. A patent is pending.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Betty Rollin in Clyde, Missouri.

  • Patricia Sorenson

    Please pray for financial help, food, & return of family to church. That God will help grandchildren. May God Bless You for your work Thank You

  • Marie Muna

    Let us pray for more young people to be courageous in answering the call of vocation to the priesthood and religous and let us pray also for their parents that they may cooperate fully with the will of the Holy Spirit if their child is called to serve in the ministry of our Lord. May God continue to bless your work. Thank you.

  • TKK

    I am so thankful to you, Sisters! I need to be on a gluten free diet and was heartbroken to think I wouldn’t be able to receive the Body of Christ any longer. My prayers have been answered. May God continue to bless the work you do!

  • Michelle

    I have 2 children who are now almost 11 and 8. They both have Celiac. When the first was making his first Holy Communion, I didn’t know what to do. It was very upsetting to me that he wouldn’t be able to have a host just because of something that he was born with. I always learned that Jesus and God reached out to those in need, not excluded them. So it was difficult. Then I learned about your low-gluen host and our GI doctor confirmed that they are safe for him. Now, his younger brother is receiving his first communion next week – also with your low-gluten hosts. I have read your story several times. I’ve starred at your ingredient list several times. I think that this is truly a miracle that this special bread has been made and I thank you for your prayers and your ministry. How incredible to be witness to a miracle. What a privilege! Your hosts are so incredibly important to my family. God bless and love to you!

  • Jill Beyer

    I remember the day that Father explained that I would no longer be able to receive Holy Communion of the Eucharistic Host thirteen years ago (after my diagnosis). Everything sort of stopped. As he was explaining what the church expected me to do at that time, I literally couldn’t move. Are we all not invited to His Table? Although I was very grateful to be able to receive Him completely in His Precious Blood, many churches were not offering Him in this way. So I began to pray, hard, for Holy Communion. God answers prayer. Thank you so much for responding to the Holy Spirit with the low gluten communion bread. Please continue to pray that low gluten communion will be offered to us in parishes around the world. Many parishes have been slow to accept the change or are not aware of the new low gluten option or unwilling to order the hosts. I myself have only been able to receive communion of the Host three times this year at my son’s church some three hours away, although worthy to receive. The priest at that parish has an aunt who is celiac and much more understanding about what is necessary. I have personally spoken our wonderful Bishop but it will take more time. The biggest obstacle has been remove with your work. I am hopeful that all the barriers to receiving Holy Communion will be removed as more people are diagnosed. God Bless you sisters and employees for all your hard work. Many, many prayers have been said for you.

  • Norelle Sloane

    Dear Sisters,
    It was wonderful to find your Community on the internet as I browsed looking for someone who makes low gluten Communion wafers.Our only source in Australia is closing down on 30th June 2011. I am a member of the coeliac society who distributes the wafers & at this point in time don’t know where to go.So my question is do you send to Australia & if so what would be the expense?We only need the small wafers.
    Would be grateful to hear from you when convenient,
    God Bless
    Norelle Mary Sloane

  • Pat Kelly

    Thank you for your perseverence in offering gf host. I have celiac and want more than anything to receive the Body of Christ as often as I go to Mass. My pastor was kind enough to order your gluten-free host for anyone in our parish that need it. I am so happy to be blessed with this host. It means the world to me. Thank you so very much and God bless. PAT

  • Genevieve Potts

    Thank you so much for not giving up on producing a gluten free host. My sister is Roman Catholic and has been blessed by being to have the host since it was first produced. God was really with the sisters in the kitchen that night or the waffle iron would have been cleaned before the miracle would have had time to finish. This host has blessed many Roman Catholic celiacs and others who can not tolerate wheat. I saw a PBS news report a number of years ago. I was really excited to see it. May God continue to bless your work. Genevieve Potts.

  • Jaci James

    Thank you, Sisters, for your determination in coming up with this so important product. Can you share with me how most parishes typically handle the “process” for the person(s) w/celiac to receive the Body of Christ at mass? I have heard that you need to be cautious throughout the whole process (not allowing sacristan or others to touch the wafer) from taking the wafer out of the bag up until the time that person receives Christ in their hand. At this point, we only have 2 people that have requested this. But as it becomes familiar, I suspect there are several more who would if they knew there was another option.

    How does the wafer get to the altar to be consecrated? Is it kept in a pyx and brought forward with gifts of bread and wine? Does priest still hold and hand the wafer to the person w/celiac?

  • Lola McGourty

    Go Sisters! I learned in a Catholic Biblical class today about the competition with the nuns by “commercial” wafer factories. There must be no contest when it comes to the love and reverence bestowed by vowed sisters.
    That includes the motivation to seek a solution for people who would otherwise be unable to receive this gift from Jesus–which all of the faithful are privileged to have access to.

    I do not know if there is a “brand X” controversy, but I do wish to show my support.