With a tried and true recipe, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have been producing altar breads and distributing them since 1910. But in the early 1990s, they began to receive telephone calls from individuals who had a unique need for a different recipe: They suffered from celiac disease and could not receive holy Communion in the form of the usual, wheat-based hosts.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to eating gluten, found in wheat, rye, barley and many prepared foods, such as wheat-based breads and pastas.
According to the Mayo Clinic, about one in 100 people are affected by celiac disease.
Celiac disease can cause severe stomach pain and diarrhea and, in extreme cases, nutritional deficits due to the disease’s interference with nutrient absorption. A gluten-free diet is the most effective way to manage celiac disease, but this can be difficult because the protein is found in so many foods, including altar bread used at holy Communion.
Sister Lynn D’Souza, one of the Benedictine sisters, said that as the calls for low-gluten altar breads increased in the 1990s, the sisters made several attempts at finding a solution. They tried making altar bread with spelt flour, a natural wheat, but the gluten content was still too high for celiacs to safely consume it.
At about the same time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other church leaders were studying the celiac/gluten issue: Given that altar breads must be made from wheat and water, how could celiac disease sufferers fully participate in holy Communion?
They also asked: What about priests or deacons who suffer from celiac disease, for whom wheat-based altar breads posed significant health risks? Could young men suffering from celiac disease be ordained if they could not receive the host?
In early 2003, said Sister Lynn, the bishops contacted the sisters because they had heard they were trying to work on a low-gluten option.
“They had a wheat starch that they had approved as valid matter, and they sent us some. I never in a million years thought I would use my biomedical degree, but I walked into the kitchen one day and [one of the sisters] said she was going to experiment, and I was all over it. We started mixing and baking, using a waffle iron with flat plates,” she said.
The first attempts were dismal failures.
“Then, one day,” said Sister Lynn, “we were working with two different kinds of wheat starch. I felt like nothing was working. Sister Jane said, ‘What happens if you mix them together?'”
The result was so sticky and clingy that Sister Lynn struggled to get it off of her fingers.
“I remember flinging it down on the waffle iron to get it off, and then, I said, ‘Oh, we’d better get that batter off the iron.’ But then, we both looked down and there was a round-looking host!”
The “providential” recipe received approval from the USCCB. It had less than 0.01 percent gluten, and the Center for Celiac Research deemed it “safe for celiacs to use.”
“There are probably more than 3,000 people who get our low-gluten breads now, and more parishes are ordering them, too,” said Sister Lynn. “But what we didn’t expect was the gratitude that people have.”
Some kids sent them thank-you letters.
“The work of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “In his time, he’ll bring it all together.”
Wonderful wisdom for anyone trying to put together the right recipe — in the kitchen or in life.