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Real bread has crumbs

Real bread has crumbs - (07-05-2012)

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Photo: Benedictine Sister Rita Clair Dohn shares a laugh with Sister Mary Laurentia Doyle as she works on the altar bread production line based at the Missouri monastery.

It’s rare that someone is blessed to live where she works and work where she lives. And to enjoy it too can be a blessing from God.

For more than a century, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have produced altar breads, also called communion hosts, inside their monastic walls. They are the largest religious producers of such breads in the United States, having made more than 97 million for customers around the world last year.

“I think many people would be surprised at the role we serve in the daily Eucharist. Our life focuses on prayer, community and hospitality, and while our prayer ministry wraps around the world, we do not physically minister away from the monastery,” said altar bread manager Sister Rita Clair Dohn, OSB, who has served as altar bread department manager for 12 years. “That’s why this work is a perfect fit for us. Producing the breads that become the Eucharist, doing it within our charism of a semi-cloistered community, means we don’t punch a time clock and can maintain a balanced schedule of work and prayer - just as St. Benedict’s Rule instructs us.”

Rich tradition

Driving through the rolling hills of the Missouri countryside, one cannot miss the Sisters’ monastery: a series of large buildings with a Romanesque chapel rising majestically off in the distance. Surrounded by trees and acres of farmland, it is a quiet place tucked away from the busy life most people lead. But regardless of the remote location, the Sisters’ connection to the world has been a vital link for those of faith for the past century.

The Benedictine Sisters who call this place home are the latest in a long line of tradition that dates back to the 1870s. When the pioneering Sisters built their foundations of the monastery, they did so on the charism of their lasting dedication to the Eucharist.

The Sisters of that early generation made their own hosts using tongs and a campfire. They soon responded to pleas asking for breads for the surrounding area, growing their business year after year, parish by parish, believer by believer, until their breads were sold across the country and around the world.

“We are like many small businesses in America where we don’t have a large marketing budget for slick advertising campaigns or colorful and complicated packaging to spread the word about what we offer,” Sister Rita Clair said. “Our product is like our life - simple, full of prayer and offered with dignity and grace.”

A few crumbs left on the plate

“Real bread has crumbs.” Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Mary Laurentia Doyle, OSB made the simple observation one morning before heading to work in the monastery’s altar bread department. She smiled and added, “I’m amazed some people don’t realize that.”

Sister Rita Clair clarified, “Some people have come to expect altar breads to be so perfect in shape that the breads are almost like plastic, pumped out by the millions on machines. We don’t do that. So when a few crumbs are left behind in the packaging, some people get upset. But they are sacrificing taste and quality for appearance. In a way, that is a reflection on many aspects of today’s world.” She paused then added with a smile, “I’m going out on a limb here but suspect when Jesus broke bread at the Last Supper, there were a few crumbs left on the plate.”

The Sisters’ customers remain loyal. That includes parishes and churches of many denominations and wholesalers. In fact, the Sisters provide breads for other religious orders to repackage and sell to support their own monasteries.

“Religious communities are not owned or operated by a diocese, and very few receive any funding,” Sister Rita Clair said. “We have to pay bills like everyone else, so it’s important we support each other in our mission and calling.”

Like one of the family

It’s common knowledge around the area that a person is very lucky if he or she gets a job at the monastery.

Sister Sean Douglas, OSB, prioress of the Clyde monastery, remarked at the recent annual employee luncheon, “Our employees don’t work for us. They work with us. They often tell us how blessed they feel to be a part of our lives. In reality, it is the Sisters who are blessed.”

The nearest town (affectionately called the Village of Clyde) has a population that hovers around 70, with agriculture as the main industry. So good jobs within a short driving distance are scarce. The Sisters provide a means of income to their neighbors, with jobs that include a variety of health and retirement benefits.

“The Sisters treat their employees like royalty,” said director of communications Kelley Baldwin, who has been with the Congregation for seven years. “When someone learns of where I work, the first thing they usually ask is, ‘Can I get a job there?’”

That is especially true in the altar bread department, where some of the lay employees have been with the Sisters for more than a quarter of a century. 

“Nobody wants to leave, which is good for us” Sister Rita Clair joked. Then she turned serious, “I’m always amazed at their work ethic. They approach the making of altar breads with the same reverence that we do. It’s a very special relationship.”

Sheila Schieber has worked for the Benedictine Sisters for 28 years, starting right after high school. She had plans to save a little money for nursing school, but realized her dream job was a little closer to home.

“The Sisters are always praying for us and caring for our needs, there to help us in any way,” Schieber said. “A few years ago, my family lost power during a major ice storm, and the weather was brutally cold. The Sisters had a generator and opened their home to us and many others. It is that spirit of giving, that level of caring, that makes them so special.”

Thus, that is the hallmark of Benedictine hospitality, which often extends outside the Sisters’ monastic walls. Sister Rita Clair recalled times she and other Sisters made hospital or home visits when an employee was sick, had experienced a death in the family and in happier times too.

“We share in their joys and in their sorrows,” she said. “It still surprises me when we visit and they say, ‘Oh, Sister, you didn’t have to do that.’ And I think, yes, I did. I did it because I care. It surprises me that it surprises them, even after all these years. Employers should respect their employees. I’m amazed that’s the exception rather than the rule.”

Working side by side with the Sisters has resulted in more than just a shared job of making altar breads. Relationships have deepened over the years into very meaningful experiences. Such as Schieber’s joy of working with Benedictine Sister Mary Frances Soto, OSB, who has helped make altar breads for almost four decades.

“When we worked together, she became my spiritual guide,” Schieber said. “She has helped me so much in understanding my faith and the Church.”

Keeping the faith

Managing a small business in trying economic times can break some people. But the Sisters keep faith that God will provide, remaining committed to creating a quality product for everyone.

That can be difficult as prices increase from everything to flour to packaging supplies to shipping costs. After years of avoiding the unavoidable, the Sisters finally faced the fact they needed to charge a little more for their altar breads.

“Suppliers increase prices more and more. When we increased ours a few months ago, I struggled with how to break the news to our customers,” Sister Rita Clair said. “I’m the kind of person who apologizes for having to do that. Others....,” she paused, sighed then added, “...others don’t even have the courtesy to contact their customers. They just up the price and go about their day. So many are struggling right now. Churches are struggling. We have worked hard not to flippantly pass on our increases to them without doing our own part too, instead absorbing much of those increases ourselves and cutting into our bottom line.”

Power of prayer

Adding to the Sisters’ altar bread success was the invention of a low-gluten wafer in 2004. The miracle of the little host makes it possible for most people suffering from wheat allergies or from Celiac Sprue Disease to take part in the Eucharist.

In the past seven years, almost 7,000 customers have come to rely on the special hosts, which are the only Vatican-approved low-gluten breads made in the United States. That number includes parishes and individuals, who carry the breads separately so they won’t be contaminated with the regular wheat hosts.

“The letters and phone calls we receive from our low-gluten customers ring out with joy and gratitude,” Sister Rita Clair said with a smile. “We are religious women dedicated to the Eucharist. It is our privilege and blessing to help everyone become one with Christ at the Lord’s table.” She spread her arms wide, smiled and added, “Bringing together everyone who shares a love of Christ is our joy.”

With more and more religious communities closing their altar bread production lines every day because of increasing business taken over by commercial producers, the Benedictine Sisters remain committed to their calling.

“People who use our breads don’t just get a wafer,” Sister Rita Clair said. “They are center to our daily prayer. With our breads, we pray for those who use them, for the needs of the priests and the pastors, for the needs of the parishes. There are so many who believe in the power of prayer, and our breads are an extension of that.”

For more information, please contact Kelley Baldwin, director of communications, at (660) 562-7433 or kelley@bspa.us.