Bucks County nuns help prepare Communion feast for papal Mass

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 Baking altar breads is the work that breaks up days focused primarily on prayer for the sisters of the Monastery of St. Clare in Langhorne, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Baking altar breads is the work that breaks up days focused primarily on prayer for the sisters of the Monastery of St. Clare in Langhorne, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the Bible, Jesus famously feeds a crowd of 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish. Pope Francis will have a much larger flock to feed when he celebrates Mass in Philadelphia next month, but he’ll have lots of help.

The Rev. Dennis Gill is in charge of figuring how it’s all going to work. On a recent day, he was busy at  the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City where he is the rector. 

“This is the work room, if you will, for the liturgies,” he says of the sacristy, where he gets ready for Mass several times a week.

A rather formal and soft-spoken man, Gill is also the head of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Having lived in Vatican City for 10 years, he has a lot of experience participating in many papal Masses with John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Sometimes they’re incredibly wonderful experiences, a sense of Christ and his church assembled from all over the world,” he remembers. “Sometimes, because of other features, they weren’t so wonderful, sometimes people don’t behave in a large crowd.”

Gill has faith this Mass will go smoothly.

By the numbers, it will involve 1,500 priests and deacons who’ll help distribute about 500,000 Communion wafers consecrated by Pope Francis. The plan does not include lay Eucharistic ministers to help feed the crowd. Ushers will carry gold and white umbrellas to protect the wafers or “hosts” and to mark the spots where they’ll be distributed.

While many Christians celebrate Communion, Catholics believe that the bread and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Jesus. That’s why it’s important to Gill to keep the mood reverent, even with a crowd of more than one million.

A hundred thousand of the wafers to be distributed were made in the kitchen at the Monastery of St. Clare in Langhorne, Bucks County.

‘A hidden way’ to help

Behind a glass door with a sign reading “Altar Bread Department,” a small group of cloistered nuns, known as the Poor Clares, bakes Communion wafers, just as they have done for nearly 100 years. 

First, the sisters mix a simple batter of flour and water. Then, they ladle the batter onto hot stoves to bake. A top plate, with designs such as crosses and other religious symbols, is lowered down to create patterns in the giant wafers as they cook with a loud hissing sound on the 350-degree stoves.

Like most of the appliances in the Altar Bread Department, the sisters have special names for the stoves, such as Raphael, after the archangel, and Maddalena, the American foundress of the Poor Clares.

Later, the sisters cut the thin sheets of bread into circles and inspect them for cracks. The wafers that meet their approving eyes are packed to be shipped to churches in this area and as far away as Canada.

Baking altar breads is the work that breaks up days focused primarily on prayer, said Sister Anne who has lived in the monastery for 17 years.

Normally, the sisters make about 7,000 wafers a day, but for Pope Francis, they had to work a little harder.

“When we found out we might be making them, we stepped up our production a little, and we were making about 10,000 a day,” she said. “So it’s about 10 days worth of work.”

Ten large boxes full of wafers for the papal Mass are ready for pickup in a cool alcove next to the cutting room.

The sisters rarely leave the monastery except for doctor’s appointments, but the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has given these women permission to attend the Mass. Some of them have opted to stay behind and watch it on television.

Whether they stay or go, Sister Anne believes baking the wafers is the most meaningful way for them to be part of the celebration.

“It’s a way that means a great deal to us because the breads become the Communion host, become the body of Christ, and it’s a way that we can be united with all the people there in a very hidden way, which is very much like our life,” she said.

Local priest hopes to break the bread

On the day of the big Mass, once Pope Francis blesses all the wafers, the Rev. Dan Swift is hoping to help distribute them to the faithful. 

Swift, pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes in Medford, New Jersey, has applied to be one of the 1,500 Eucharistic ministers from the Philadelphia region and around the world.

He was in the Vatican 12 years ago when Mother Teresa was beatified, a step on the path to sainthood, and remembers being surrounded by hundreds of people who were clamoring to take Communion, but couldn’t reach the priest.

“I reached over the people in front of me and I pointed to my collar and I said to the priest, ‘Give me some hosts,’ and I was able to break those hosts into the greatest number of particles, and people were receiving just maybe a crumb,” he said, “But whether it’s a whole host or a half a host, Jesus is Jesus.”

The Archdiocese expects the 500,000 wafers it has ordered will be enough for all of the Catholics in the crowd, even though more than 1 million people are expected to attend the Mass.

However, if they do run out of wafers, perhaps they’ll follow Swift’s lead and continue breaking the bread.

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