Hours before sunrise, life begins anew at the Valley of Our Lady Monastery. It’s a life like no other in this rural countryside. The 14 Cistercian nuns, who call the 122-acre monastery in Prairie du Sac, WI, in the Diocese of Madison, their home, live a cloistered life of solitude and prayer.
To sustain their livelihood, the nuns bake altar bread. Their modern bread-baking operation seems out of place in a Cistercian monastery, whose roots go back to 1098.
The process begins with flour and water measured and mixed into a commercial mixer, blending gallons of altar bread batter. It is then pumped through a hose attached to a pipe and poured into an oven, where 30 heated irons bake the bread and move it along a conveyor belt. The oven is about 15 feet long and each baking iron is heated to about 325 degrees.
The computerized baker, manufactured as a cookie wafer machine and imported from Austria, produces about 6,000 11-by-15-inch sheets of whole wheat or white bread in about six hours. The nuns bake one day a week and cut and package the other five days. A workday is from about 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with breaks for prayer and meals.
The process, which involves 10 nuns doing various tasks, produces more than 12 million altar breads each year.
After the thin sheets of altar bread are removed from the oven, they must be softened. They are placed on racks and moved to a special room where a warm fog penetrates and softens the bread.
Following this dampening process, the sheets are stacked several inches high and placed on a bread cutter that resembles a drill press. The bread is cut into round hosts of three different sizes and then inspected for imperfections.
The wafers are gathered and placed upright on a half-tube rack in batches of 100. These racks are loaded onto another machine that packages the wafers in rolls of airtight cellophane tubes, ready for packaging into cardboard shipping boxes and transporting to more than 400 parishes around the United States. [snip] Catholic OnLine
Interestingly, if this monastery is able to provide only 400 parishes with 12,000,000 hosts, there must be a heckuva lot of other religious orders also involved in the baking of hosts. There are about 19,000 parishes in the U.S. Of course, many of them are small.
But one would guess that the decrease in the number of nuns in the last 40 years must also have led to a crisis in the manufacture of hosts. I certainly hope that Sara Lee or Wonder Bread aren't grabbing a chunk of that market for themselves.
In the "olden days" it used to be that maybe 30% or so of the congregation would receive Holy Communion at Mass. Except on Easter Sunday when just about everybody did. After Vatican Two, it must have happened that a miracle was performed by someone that prevented most Catholics from sinning; for now virtually everybody receives Communion at Mass, with no Confessions necessary. I'd bet the convent production planners didn't expect that, either.
Tip O' the Hat to Amy Welborn!