CALGARY—Every Sunday, Catholics take communion at mass, accepting a tiny wafer dipped in wine to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a simple but important ritual some have taken part in their whole lives — but for the nuns once tasked with making that wafer, everything has changed in less than a lifetime.
The wafer, a thin, round wheat cracker used in Catholic and other churches, was once made by hand, explained Sister Margaret Nadeau of Calgary’s Sisters of the Precious Blood monastery, a contemplative order tasked with making and distributing the wafers. It was constant, labour-intensive work, she said.
But what many people don’t know is that even as demand for altar breads rises, the process of making these wafers has become mechanized, and often outsourced to large corporations, as the nuns who once made them dwindle in number.
Founded in Quebec in 1861 by Catherine Aurelia Caouette, the Sisters of the Precious Blood order is responsible for making and distributing the host. The nuns wear a distinctive red and white habit, and are a contemplative order, meaning they aren’t affiliated with a profession like teaching or nursing.
The Sisters of the Precious Blood now have four monasteries across Canada in Calgary, London, Hamilton and Regina. Their Edmonton and Charlottetown locations closed in 2012 due to dwindling numbers; the Ottawa location closed in the 1990s.
In many ways, their experience is an example of what it’s like to be a nun in today’s world — the sisters are aging, their work is becoming less relevant to the wider public, and new applicants are few and far between.
Nadeau said the nuns’ day-to-day lives haven’t actually changed that much. They still find meaning in fulfilling requests for prayer, distributing wafers to the diocese and in a quiet, contemplative life with each other.
Nadeau, now 84, said that when she joined, she was told about a time when wafers were originally made one at a time on an open fire, with tongs that pressed each altar bread into shape, “like cooking marshmallows outside.”
That process had changed by the time Nadeau, originally from Medicine Hat, became a sister more than 60 years ago — the altar breads were made using a device similar to a large waffle iron that made six wafers at a time.
Today’s contraption is just a larger, automated version of that, she said. Each sheet contains around 20 wafers, and takes just a couple of minutes to cook. The wafers are now made at a facility at the Sisters of the Precious Blood monastery in Hamilton, where automated technology has been used for more than 20 years to get the job done.
“We’ve had a lot of adjustments over the years,” Nadeau said, adding that the switch to automation was primarily driven by Canada’s growing population, which increased demand for altar breads. “We wouldn’t be able to keep up,” she said.
Though making the altar breads has traditionally been the work of contemplative orders like the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Nadeau said it’s also become big business in the secular world. In America, one big company — Cavanagh Altar Breads — has squeezed most wafer-making convents out of the market, even sending its products overseas.
“It’s a company, and it’s aggressive,” said Nadeau. “It’s totally business.”
Previously, one or two nuns would work all day in each monastery making the wafers, said Nadeau. Now, one or two nuns in each location are responsible for packing up orders and sending them to parishes. Calgary currently distributes the wafers they receive from Hamilton to churches as far away as British Columbia.
What’s it like to be a nun in 2019? A little lonelier, said Nadeau. When she joined, Sisters of the Precious Blood had around 30 nuns in Edmonton and around 10 in the Calgary house, which opened in 1951. Today, there are just six in the entire province, all located in Calgary.
Even when Nadeau joined, the number of women becoming nuns was in sharp decline. Nobody else she knew was joining the sisterhood, and of those who entered the order at the same time she did, none remain.
Statistics from the Canadian Religious Conference show that the number of men and women in religious orders in Canada dropped from 16,900 in 2012, to 12,220 in 2018. The majority of people belonging to orders are in Quebec.
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Vatican statistics show that while the number of nuns is decreasing in North America, it’s slowly rising in Africa and Southeast Asia.
And according to a 2019 report on religious orders in Canada, only 12 per cent of those in religious orders are 57 or younger. The report also found there are approximately twice as many women in religious orders as men in religious orders in Canada, but that women’s orders are diminishing at a much faster pace.
“In a sense, there’s nothing we can do about it, so there’s no point worrying,” said Nadeau, adding, “(Many) don’t see a purpose in this way of life.”
At the Sisters of the Precious Blood monastery in Calgary, a large house built in 1971 and tucked away from the sidewalk on steep Erlton Road, Nadeau said many don’t know the sisters are even there.
Nevertheless, they get hundreds of letters and calls for prayer requests. The requests are written on slips of paper and stuck to the door of their chapel as a reminder, then deposited in a special box once they’ve been fulfilled.
“Every time we go to the chapel, we see our vocation,” said Sister Maria Nguyen, another member of the order.
The chapel itself, located on the main floor of the house, is small and simple, with four colourful stained-glass windows and a brown brick wall curving around the altar. A hand-carved wooden crucifix, a recent gift from Portugal, hangs above the altar.
The sisters live on the top floor, and their bedroom windows overlook the Calgary skyline. The kitchen and dining room, also on the main floor, are used for communal meals, down the hall from various offices for the monastery’s business activities.
In the basement there’s a two-room library lined with books, and a room used to organize communion wafer orders. They’re sorted according to size and type — the wafers come in white, whole wheat and low-gluten options, stacked in plastic wrappers like cookies, waiting to be sent out into the world.
Each sister has her own responsibilities; one does the books, one organizes the library, one sorts the wafer orders. The newest sister to move to Calgary, who arrived in October, is there to play the organ, a rare talent today. The sisters rotate household chores like cleaning and cooking.
Just up the hill is the pioneer section of St. Mary’s Cemetery, where several sisters are buried at the area’s highest peak.
Though the monastery gets less visitors now, Nadeau said the chapel is still overflowing at Christmas and Easter. A few people come for weekly services, most from the Filipino community.
Nadeau said the majority of new sisters are recent immigrants to Canada, mostly from the Philippines or other Asian countries. Nguyen, who came to Canada from Vietnam in 1991, said it’s much more common in her home country for women to become nuns. She grew up wanting to become one, but her plans were disrupted by the Vietnam War.
Nguyen tried to leave Vietnam 10 times, and finally succeeded, escaping by boat. Safe in Canada, she still found herself pulled to the sisterhood. Nguyen fulfilled her childhood dream and became a sister 24 years ago, and has been at the Calgary monastery for seven years.
The sisters used to socialize more with other nuns in Calgary, but as the population of nuns has aged, they do less and less visiting.
Nadeau remembers how mysterious the sisters were to her as a child. She joined the order in Calgary, two years after finishing high school. Despite being nervous about the decision, she said she knew it was the right thing for her.
“It was just something that in my heart I felt I should do.”