ALHAMBRA, Calif. — Making Communion hosts has kept convents of nuns around the country financially solvent for nearly a century, but in the face of increasing competition, some are beginning to discover they cannot survive on bread alone.
For years, convents around the country have supplied parishes with the altar bread used at Mass: the bread that becomes the Bread of Life. These nuns see this ministry as part of their contemplative mission.
But a slower economy and increased competition from more organized corporate manufacturers mean some of the convents have seen their revenue decrease and their way of life threatened.
“People don't think of the nuns: We rely on this one source of income, and it's slipping away,” explained one of the Carmelite nuns at the Carmel of St. Teresa in Alhambra, Calif. She asked that her name not be used in the spirit of “monastic obscurity.”
These Carmelite nuns started making altar bread in Alhambra in 1913 but because of financial considerations had to switch to repackaging altar bread for local distribution 20 to 30 years ago. Now even that is a tenuous moneymaker.
Competition from religious-goods stores and direct marketing by larger, secular groups has cut into what was once a market almost totally held by nuns, the Carmelite sister explained.
The nuns don't always know how to compete. “Nuns live a very simple life and can't be bothered about business,” she said.
Despite the setback, the nuns remain patient.
“I understand it,” the sister said. “If the parishes don't have money they will look [at less-expensive outlets] first.”
While the nun explained that her convent puts its trust in God and “doesn't worry,” she admitted, “we only survived a couple of years ago because we received a couple of grants.”
The Alhambra Carmelites currently serve the needs of about 150 parishes. Sister said they would need to pick up another 75 to be financially secure, and if things worsen, she said the convent might have to relocate to a smaller area with few competitors.
Many of the convents that repackage altar breads get some or all of their hosts — as well as help with advice and expertise — from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo.
There, Sister Rita Dohn, the head of the convent's altar-bread division, sees the current decline in altar-bread requests as part of the larger struggles in the Catholic Church. With increased competition, fewer priests and parish consolidations, she said it is little wonder that orders for altar bread aren't as high as they could be.
Like the Carmelite sister at Alhambra, she said she wishes their ministry had more support from the Church at large.
“We don't ask for charity, we ask for the support of our ministry,” she said. Her message to pastors is simple: “If you value the prayer life of the community, support us.”
Msgr. Francis Weber — who runs historic San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, Calif., 15 miles northwest of Los Angeles — is one priest who has heeded the call to support the contemplative nuns. He said he buys his altar bread from the Alhambra Carmelites.
“I think I should support their ministry,” he said. “You can imagine how difficult things would be for the Church without their prayers.” They are looking for other means to support themselves, he said, but it's “slim pickings.”
Despite the support of some of the clergy, the number of religious houses that bake altar bread has declined sharply. According to an article on the Benedictine sister's Web site, there are fewer than 30 monasteries in the United States that bake this bread. Forty years ago, there were more than 200.
Whatever the trend, not all convents are in trouble. At the Corpus Christi Dominican Convent in Menlo Park, Calif., near San Francisco, things have been a good deal better, explained Dominican Sister Mary Rose of the Sacred Heart.
There, too, the nuns repackage and sell the bread to local parishes. They recently stopped baking because of the heavy lifting involved, and some of the nuns are elderly.
“Some of larger parishes have gone to Church-goods stores, but many find they can get exactly what they need from us — they can pick it up or have overnight delivery,” she said.
Unlike the convent in Alhambra, Sister Mary Rose said her convent has had very few parishes cancel their orders and “have recently added some new ones.”
One thing that seems to have helped: The Dominican Friars of the Western Province added information about the sisters’ work on their Web site.
Regardless of how they are doing financially, all of the nuns agreed on one thing: The contemplative life is important to the Church, and the sale of altar bread is one of the few moneymakers that coincide well with that lifestyle.
“It is very important to us to have an income-producing work that allows us to stay in the monastery,” Sister Rita said. “It is the balance of our life: work and prayer.”
Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart agreed.
“It is a beautiful contemplative work in the spirit of silence and prayer,” she said. “You can pray for all of those who will use it, the people, the priests who will consecrate it; your prayers go out to them with the hosts.”
The anonymous Carmelite sister also noted the positive benefits of contemplative life.
“Our charism and contribution to the Church is prayer,” she said, “and there is a true connection with this work because of our prayer life.”
For the nuns in Alhambra, that way of life is currently hanging by a thread.
“We have been looking for other things to do,” the Carmelite sister explained, “so if you think of anything, let us know.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.