Breaded bliss

The Cavanagh Co. is the Microsoft of altar bread, with an 80 percent market share in the United States and similar or greater percentages in Canada, England, and Australia.

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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SMITHFIELD, R.I. - There are very few recession-proof businesses left in the world, but the Cavanagh family of Rhode Island thinks they may have one - they make Communion wafers for millions of churchgoers each week.

These days, the company connected to the prayer business is enjoying an uptick.

"When times are tough, more people seem to go to church," said Brian Cavanagh, the chief executive officer of Cavanagh Co. He said sales of the company's altar breads are up as much as 5 percent this year, a possible indicator of the national mood. Sales spiked 10 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In its 62d year of operation, the Cavanagh family business is the nation's leading supplier of Communion wafers. Their commercial bakery in this northern Rhode Island town runs 24 hours a day to make about 25 million wafers a week, primarily for Catholics, but for other denominations as well.

The company's manufacturing floor is a humming assembly line of weird, Willie Wonka-like machines. Contraptions custom-built by the Cavanaghs will thud, click sharply, and whoosh at odd intervals, like the percussion section of a highly experimental jazz band.

This effort goes to make one of the most revered products in the world, which faithful members of the Catholic Church believe will become the body of Jesus Christ.

The family markets its bread as "untouched by human hands" until they are delivered to parishioners in the Communion line. "You just want to make it as perfect as possible," said Andy Cavanagh, a member of the family that runs the business.

Before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, Communion wafers were shiny white, much thinner than they are now, and designed to dissolve on the tongue, the Cavanaghs explained. The Church now celebrates the Eucharist with wafers that more closely resembled bread, and the Cavanagh Co. patented techniques to produce thicker unleavened wafers with sealed edges to prevent crumbs, the Cavanaghs said.

The family boasts of an 80 percent market share in the United States, and similar or even greater percentages in Canada, England, and Australia. With those kinds of numbers, the Cavanagh Co. is the Microsoft of altar bread.

The company sells its wafers to religious supply retail stores and convents, which are ramping up Christmas orders. Sister Mary Michael of the Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx, N.Y., said her monastery, like many, used to bake altar bread for sale to surrounding churches as a source of income.

But demand outstripped what their antiquated equipment could produce, and for decades the nuns have bought wafers wholesale from Cavanagh, to sell at a markup. "It's one of our means of support - it helps," she said.

Sister Mary Veronica of the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare in Jamaica Plain said the monastery has sold Cavanagh bread since well before she joined her order 18 years ago.

"It's a good product," she said. "Better than a number of places that make hosts."

Prices vary, but a box of 1,000 standard wafers sells retail at $12 or more, about twice the wholesale price, the Cavanagh family said.

Responsibility for running the Cavanagh family business is beginning to fall on the fourth generation, a group of siblings infused with dry humor. Twenty-eight-year-old Luke Cavanagh is marketing director.

"We just made up his title a couple weeks ago," deadpanned Luke's brother, Andy, who is 30.

"Well, what's your title?" Luke asked Andy.

"General manager."

"Yeah," Luke said with an eye roll, "whatever."

Another brother, 31-year-old Dan, is head of plant operations.

They are the sons of company president Peter Cavanagh, whose brother is Brian, the CEO. The company was founded in the 1940s by John F. Cavanagh, an inventor who registered more than 100 patents, and his sons John Jr. and Paul, a pair of liturgical artists who donated their work to churches and religious organizations.

The company employs 36 full-time people making altar bread. The family is Roman Catholic, "but you certainly don't have to be Catholic to work here," said Brian. "It's a manufacturing company. There's no fake reverence for the product." Until the wafers are used by a priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, "it's just bread," he said.

Communion wafers taste plain because there isn't much in them - just wheat flour and water. The Catholic Church forbids leavening agents, such as yeast or oil. The bread is made in "the ultimate waffle iron," said Luke.

The company's massive, motorized oven consists of a series of interlocking metal plates that move like a giant bulldozer tread. About every two seconds, nozzles spray batter on one of the passing plates. The batter is pressed flat, as in a waffle iron, then travels a 31-second baking cycle at 250 degrees.

The rectangular sheets of finished bread are tan and ragged around the edges, like old parchment paper. At this stage the bread is crunchy and brittle.

A conveyor belt whisks the baked sheets into a steam room. Humidity makes the bread easier to cut without crumbling.

Next comes the die cutter. Sheets of bread automatically drop between two rollers, which cut 112 standard Communion wafers from each sheet in about one second, while simultaneously indenting a cross or a lamb shape into each wafer.

The wafers and the chaff left over from the cut are spun are in perforated tubes, which shake the chaff into waste barrels. A local pig farmer feeds the waste to his hogs.

"Holy pigs, we call them," said Luke.

Finished wafers ride conveyers into the "columnizer," a packaging machine custom-built by Peter Cavanagh. The 12-foot machine, draped with tubes and wires, has one job sealing columns of wafers in 100-count cellophane packages, like tubes of tiny Ritz crackers.

Developing the wafer-packaging machine gave Peter Cavanagh a host of headaches. "Our sales people put a lot of pressure on me," he recalled. "They had the columns sold before we knew how to make them, while I was in the machine shop throwing hammers."

Cavanagh's technology sets it apart in the industry, said Dan Stutte, owner of Catholic Supply of St. Louis Inc., a retailer that has stocked Cavanagh altar breads for 40 years. By using technology beyond the reach of most monasteries or convents, Cavanagh built a reputation for delivering a "consistent" product "in a timely manner," Stutte said.

Brian Cavanagh said the business also reveals trends in religion. The company noticed a dip in Catholic Church attendance reflected in lower sales in the early part of this decade after the church sex abuse scandal broke.

"We're cautiously optimistic that the numbers have bottomed out and are on the way back up," he said. He thinks the increases may be due to the economy. He also cited the pope's US visit last April, in which the pontiff expressed regret for the scandal.

The Cavanagh Co. also provides wafers for other denominations, such as Lutheran and Episcopal churches, the family said. They bake an entirely different style of altar bread for Southern Baptist churches. Those breads are small white squares. "They probably would double as a great soup cracker," said Andy.

In that spirit, the family revealed last week that they are experimenting with a new, semisecret product line - a secular cracker. Not for dipping in wine, this cracker would be dipped in dip.

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