Story by Lara Pickford-Gordon
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.
This “work of human hands” is real for the Handmaids of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, an intercessory prayer group affiliated with the Carmelites. They gather weekly in the Ave Maria room, the small baking room at the Novitiate of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, Mt St Benedict, to prepare wafers which when consecrated at Mass become the Body of Our Lord.
The wafers are distributed to ten parishes and they also supply Catholic ecclesial communities and occasionally the Hanover Methodist Church.
On Tuesday, June 11 when the Catholic News visited, Elizabeth Austin, Lynette Adams, Sr Ann Joachim Jackson O Carm, Eunan Dolly and Mavis Hislop were each performing their respective roles in the production process. Even before starting they said a prayer giving thanks to God. At noon they paused to recite the Angelus.
Adams said the recipe is “flour and water, absolutely nothing else”. Almost equal proportions of both are used. She explained the flour is first sifted then the water added. Both are mixed in a blender to a liquid consistency.
“It takes a little while to go through this little process here with the mixing and the consistency is a critical thing. So even though sometimes the type of flour we may have, we may have to use a little more flour or a little less.”
Consistency is key
The right consistency is like a paste; too thick and the wafer can easily crack. Two batches are prepared daily. For the outsider observing, the batch doesn’t look like much but as the process was demonstrated, it was obvious looks are deceiving.
The batter is scraped from the mixing bowl into a sieve to remove any lumps. Adams makes sure and cleans most if not all the batter, “this is precious because every ounce counts,” she said.
Next, spoonfuls of batter are dropped on to a two-sided baking plate which is closed and locked. The sound which emerges is like something is frying. The excess batter that bubbles at the edges is scraped away.
“The idea is not to waste. We want to produce many because we have several orders from various parishes,” Austin said. The baking takes about 2 to 2.5 minutes and the ladies have become so adept that they know when it is ready.
When the time is right a shiny smooth round wafer is ready. The wafers are placed in a simple humidifier cupboard; bowls of boiling water are placed below and the doors shut. This keeps the wafers from dehydrating and flaking.
When the wafers are removed from the cupboard a cloth then a weight is placed on them to keep them level since they may have a slight curve after baking. The production line continues with Dolly cutting the jagged edges from the wafers and Hislop cutting them into small circles with a machine that has a drawer at the bottom to collect. Sr Ann Joachim was counting the wafers to be bagged by the thousand. Four thousand were made that day.
These ladies come from different backgrounds, all retirees—Central Bank workers, a teacher, and a flight attendant. They were four of ten persons who regularly work 9 a.m. to noon Monday to Wednesday.
The Carmelites have been making the bread for many, many years. Austin said a senior member of the Order remembers the bread making going on since 1923.
She said the Foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament (1875–1949) had a great love of the Eucharist and took on the work of making the bread used at Mass as a ministry of the order.
It was traditionally done by the Sisters. However, as their members aged and were fewer in numbers, these lay Carmelites gladly took on the task. The Handmaids have been making the wafers for the past nine years: “We consider it a privilege; it is a special ministry.”
They also make the large ceremonial hosts used for special occasions and medium-sized hosts used for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Demand varies according to the liturgical calendar with Easter and Christmas the peak times. There is a cost for the wafers: 15 cents for small, $1 for medium, $5 for large. Rosary Monastery also produces wafers.
The scraps left from the wafers are gathered and bagged. School children have dropped by to get some and even random passers-by. Tshenelle Bethel-Peters, Web/Social Media Officer and I got to sample freshly baked wafers. No salt nor sugar, but enjoyable.
There was definitely a difference in taste from the consecrated host received at Mass. As it should be, the sacramental bread received in the Eucharist nourishes the soul!