Bread of Life, Baked in Rhode Island

By Katie Zezima
New York Times
December 24, 2008

GREENVILLE, R.I. — To the Cavanagh family, the product they make at a nondescript plant here is just bread and water. But to millions at churches around the world, it is a sacred offering.

From a purely economic point of view, it is something that is almost as rare: a seemingly recession-proof business.

With the exception of a decline during recent Roman Catholic Church priest scandals, the Cavanagh Company's business of making communion bread has been growing steadily for the last 65 years.

The bread is used as a sacramental offering that, for Catholics and some other Christians, represents the breaking of the bread at the Last Supper and the body of Christ.

Kim Jaeger, who married into the Cavanagh family, packed boxes. The company has been family-owned for four generations.
Photo by Jodi Hilton

The family-owned company makes about 80 percent of the communion bread used by the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in the United States. It has a similar market share in Australia, Canada and Britain, and is now looking to expand to West Africa.

"We feel as though we're a bakery, and all we're making is bread," said Andy Cavanagh, the company's general manager, and part of the fourth generation of Cavanaghs to work here. "It's not that we don't have respect for what happens to it, but that transformation is out of our hands and takes place in a church. The best thing we can do is make sure the bread is perfect in every way possible."

Some customers say the Cavanaghs have such a big market share because their product is about as close to perfect as earthly possible. "It doesn't crumb, and I don't like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor," said the Rev. Bob Dietel, an Episcopal priest.

Mr. Dietel uses Cavanagh altar bread at his parish, St. Aidan's, in Camano Island, Wash. He likes that the large wafer, which he holds up and breaks during Mass, cracks cleanly.

A few years ago, the congregation switched to the wheat wafer the Cavanaghs make from the white.

"There's a nice clean bread flavor, as opposed to the paste flavor you have with some other breads," Mr. Dietel said.

His congregation buys about 6,000 wafers a year from a Seattle religious goods store. Traditionally, nuns, priests or members of a congregation baked altar bread. (In the Catholic tradition it is unleavened and contains only flour and water; other denominations, including Southern Baptists, allow the use of additional ingredients.)

In 1943, Andy's great-grandfather, John Cavanagh Sr., an inventor, and grandfather, John Jr., were asked to help local Catholic nuns renovate their antiquated baking equipment. The men created ovens and mixers for the nuns; then three years later, John Jr. and his brother Paul started making bread themselves.

They distributed all of it to Catholic churches and monasteries.

The Cavanaghs are Catholic and John Sr. let his sons run the business so he could concentrate on his first love, liturgical art. Crosses and paintings are showcased in a room in the Rhode Island offices.

For about 20 years, the Cavanagh bread was small, white and nearly transparent, intended to melt on the tongue. After the changes initiated in the church at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic churches wanted the wafers to be thicker and chewable, like real bread.

The Cavanaghs started producing the wafers of today — usually whole wheat and sealed on the outside to prevent crumbs.

In 1970, Paul's sons, Brian and Peter, joined the business and started expanding the company's reach beyond New England and the Catholic Church, where fewer and fewer nuns were making bread.

The company will not disclose sales numbers, but says it makes about 850 million wafers each year, and that each wafer sells for less than a penny. Most of the company's bread is sold wholesale to religious supply stores and Southern Baptist bookstores. In the Catholic Church the company sells to monasteries; the nuns then sell the bread to churches.

"It's a source of income for us, but at the same time it's a service to the parishes in the diocese," said Sister Marilyn McGillan of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Watertown, N.Y. Her monastery sells to about 100 churches in the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, N.Y. "We're like a clearinghouse for altar breads for our dioceses."

There are plenty of varieties. The company sells both white and wheat flour wafers, in sizes ranging from one and one-eighth inches wide to nine inches wide. Some are double-thick, and all except the large ones can be embossed with designs including a cross or a lamb.

'They're the classic symbols of Christianity," Andy Cavanagh said.

Brian and Peter Cavanagh still run the company, and expect Andy, 30, Peter's son; and his two brothers, Dan, 31 and Luke, 28, to buy them out one day.

The family members pride themselves on having never had an argument over business. They eat lunch together daily, and business talk almost always turns into discussions about New England's sports teams.

"When you emphasize family, the business falls into place," Brian said.

Each brother has his own niche. Andy deals with the finances, Luke the Web site and Dan the machines.

Dan Cavanagh feels most at home in the large baking area.

In huge tubs, about 90 pounds of cake flour is mixed with about 13 gallons of water. The batter is then sent through a tube, where it is piped onto a large metal plate. Another plate clamps on top, and it goes through the oven. Each plate is like a "very large, 500-pound waffle iron," Dan Cavanagh said.

After coming out of the oven, the wafers spend about 15 minutes in what amounts to a humidifier, so they do not become brittle. When sufficiently moist they roll down a tube and into a spinning cylinder that resembles the ones in bingo halls.

The wafers are then shot to a machine that either puts them in sleeves of 100 or counts them for bags of 250. Then they are boxed.

The bread for Southern Baptist churches is baked on the other side of the room. The mixing process is similar, except the dough contains oil. Since the bread rises, it is baked in a large rotating oven and comes out as small squares.

The wafers and bread are made in both white and whole wheat, but most congregations prefer the whole wheat variety because it has more flavor, the Cavanaghs said.

Business dropped about 10 percent after the clergy sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in 2002, according to the Cavanaghs. But it has picked up recently — perhaps because of the growing worldly concerns that come with a bad economy.

The company now sells church supplies including altars and pews in England and Australia, and is keeping an eye on the growing Catholic communities in Africa and South America.

But no matter where they do business, they say, the company will remain in Rhode Island, and in the family.

"It's so gratifying to have it be a successful family business," Brian Cavanagh said.


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