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Easter without Communion wafers on Long Island, and beyond, due to pandemic

Shuttered churches mean no Communion wafers in person

Shuttered churches mean no Communion wafers in person for worshippers on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.   Credit: Barry Sloan

The Communion wafer business persevered through economic recessions, 9/11, natural disasters and other acts of God.

But not the coronavirus pandemic.

Suddenly battered by plummeting orders and laws in most states restricting public gatherings, Cavanagh Altar Bread — the Rhode Island bakery that makes about 80% of Communion wafers used by Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Southern Baptist and some other churches in the United States — has indefinitely suspended factory operations.

“Never did we ever think we’d get a pandemic that literally turned the faucet off here,” said Stephen Gilson, a manager for Cavanagh, a family-owned business that dates to 1943 and bakes about a billion Communion wafers annually.

Wholesale shipments for Holy Week went out to suppliers near the start of the year, he said, but houses of worship have been closed, and will be in New York at least for the rest of the month, if not longer, due to the pandemic.

And, as Roman Catholics and other Christians on Long Island and across the country mark Good Friday and Easter, missing will be a tradition dating to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper: the offering of the Communion wafer, the thin, unleavened bread made of flour and water.

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There have been shortages for Holy Week before — for example, of branches for Palm Sunday, in 1957, 1969 and 1973 — but nothing like this.

For years, Joan Lang, who co-owns the East Northport church supplier Good News Books & Religious Goods has helped sell the wafers to churches on Long Island, including from Cavanagh, but she hasn’t arranged any of the shipments since her store closed last month “because of the circumstances” — the coronavirus.

“There is a void, of course. The main purpose of being in church is to receive the body and blood of Christ,” Lang said of Communion, which can also include wine or grape juice. “You’re taking Him into your body, and you’re taking Him into your heart. It’s very special in the Catholic religion.” 

Nationwide, about 77% of Catholics report taking Communion at least some of the time when at Mass, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Statewide, 60% of New Yorkers identify as any type of Christian, according to a Pew survey.

Long Island has about 1.8 million Christians, of whom the Island’s about 1.5 million Catholics make up the largest denomination, according to the most recently available tabulation by Association of Religion Data Archives.

More Americans search for “church” around the time of Easter — the celebration of what Christians believe was Jesus Christ’s resurrection — than at any other, with the Christmas season usually ranking second, according to a 2014 Pew analysis of Google Trends data.

At St. Brigid Catholic Church in Westbury, about 5,000 to 5,500 Communion wafers are distributed on an average Easter, according to its pastor, the Rev. Tony Stanganelli. At Saint Anthony of Padua Parish, a Catholic Church in East Northport, the number is about 3,000, said the Rev. Msgr. Joseph Mirro, the pastor, who was hospitalized late last month with the coronavirus and is recovering in self-isolation at the rectory.

Neither church — per state law and the Diocese of Rockville Centre — will hold Easter Mass before a congregation in person. Yet, both pastors said, their stockrooms are full of Communion wafers. With the pandemic looming in March, neither placed Easter orders; what’s in the stockroom would have been used in other Masses.

“We have a stock room of lots of canisters of unblessed Communion wafers waiting for the time when we can again start to celebrate Mass publicly,” Stanganelli said, estimating the quantity in storage to be as high as 10,000.

The churches considered some sort of drive-by ceremony, both pastors said, but there were worries about the possibility of risking further spread of the coronavirus. Statewide, as of Friday night, there have been more than 170,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,800 deaths.

For Easter, churches will stream Mass on the internet, with the celebrant encouraging worshippers to join in “silent spiritual Communion,” Stanganelli said.

“It’s a moment of quiet in your heart where you are uniting yourself with Jesus in this moment as you’re watching the services livestream,” he said.

Earlier this week, at the nondenominational Church Unleashed parking lot in Commack, co-pastors Todd and Mary Bishop wore face masks and gloves on Palm Sunday to distribute drive-thru Communion wafers and wine in packages. Some congregants didn’t roll down their windows all the way. The to-go items are for an online service to be held at 7 p.m. on Good Friday: a livestream from the dining room of the Bishops’ Sayville home, Todd Bishop said.

“We want to practice social distancing, but we also want to stay relationally connected, and this is a way to try to keep our church connected,” he said.

“There were definitely fewer” Communion wafers distributed than during ordinary times, he said.

At Cavanagh Altar Bread, which in the last century began supplanting the nuns and monasteries that used to bake Communion wafers and now dominates the market, “we do as well as the church does,” Gilson said of the company’s fortunes.

After the priest sexual abuse scandals in 2002, business declined about 10% but actually picked up during the Great Recession, according to a 2008 article in The New York Times.

The company prides itself on baking additive-free wafers with “a carefully molded sealed edge which prevents crumbs and are sealed minutes after baking.” Cavanagh’s website offers at least 19 varieties of wafers, including gluten-free, whole wheat, and wafers inscribed with a lamb, the Holy Family and various crosses.

Now, with religious services suspended in much of the country, the company had to lay off most of its employees, Gilson said. Whereas an average day might bring 100 or 200 orders, Gilson said, recently it was 2 or 3. The operation used to run 24 hours, but has stopped, he said.

“Basically,” he said, “the market is pretty much shut down for us.”

And as for Gilson, a Catholic himself, he had his First Communion at 7 or 8, but the sacrament of Communion hasn’t been available to him since he was last in church weeks ago.

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