To the Cavanagh family, the product they make at a nondescript plant in Greenville is just bread and water. But to millions at churches around the world, it is a sacred offering.

Share story

GREENVILLE, R.I. — To the Cavanagh family, the product they make at a nondescript plant in Greenville is just bread and water. But to millions at churches around the world, it is a sacred offering.

From a purely economic point of view, it is something almost as rare: a seemingly recession-proof business.

With the exception of a decline during recent Roman Catholic Church priest scandals, the Cavanaghs’ business of making communion bread has been growing steadily for the past 65 years.

The bread is used as a sacramental offering that, for Catholics and some other Christians, represents the breaking of the bread at the Last Supper and the Body of Christ.

The family-owned company makes about 80 percent of the communion bread, or wafers, used by the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in the United States. It has a similar market share in Australia, Canada and Britain, and is looking to expand to West Africa.

“We feel as though we’re a bakery, and all we’re making is bread,” said Andy Cavanagh, the company’s general manager and part of the fourth generation of Cavanaghs to work at the firm.

“It’s not that we don’t have respect for what happens to it, but that transformation is out of our hands and takes place in a church. The best thing we can do is make sure the bread is perfect in every way possible.”

Some customers say the Cavanaghs have such a big market share because their product is about as close to perfect as earthly possible.

“It doesn’t crumb, and I don’t like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor,” said the Rev. Bob Dietel, an Episcopal priest.

Dietel uses Cavanagh altar bread at his parish, St. Aidan’s, on Camano Island, Wash.

White or wheat wafer

A few years ago, the congregation switched to the wheat wafer the Cavanaghs make, from the white.

“There’s a nice clean bread flavor, as opposed to the paste flavor you have with some other breads,” Dietel said.

His congregation buys about 6,000 wafers a year from a Seattle religious-goods store. Traditionally, nuns, priests or members of a congregation baked altar bread. (In the Catholic tradition it is unleavened and contains only flour and water; other denominations, including Southern Baptists, allow the use of additional ingredients.)

In 1943, Andy’s great-grandfather, John Cavanagh Sr., an inventor, and grandfather, John Jr., were asked to help local Catholic nuns renovate their antiquated baking equipment. The men created new ovens and mixers for the nuns; three years later, John Jr. and his brother Paul started making bread themselves.

They distributed all of it to Catholic churches and monasteries.

The Cavanaghs are Catholic, and John Sr. let his sons run the business so he could concentrate on his first love, liturgical art. Crosses and paintings are showcased in a room in the Rhode Island offices.

For about 20 years, the Cavanagh bread was small, white and nearly transparent, intended to melt on the tongue. After the changes initiated in the church at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic churches wanted the wafers to be thicker and chewable, like real bread.

Sealed on the outside

The Cavanaghs started producing the wafers of today, usually whole wheat and sealed on the outside to prevent crumbs.

In 1970, Paul’s sons Brian and Peter joined the business and started expanding the company’s reach beyond New England and the Catholic Church, where fewer and fewer nuns were making bread.

Company officials won’t disclose sales numbers but said they make about 850 million wafers each year, and each wafer sells for less than a penny.

Most of the company’s bread is sold wholesale to religious-supply stores and Southern Baptist bookstores. In the Catholic Church, the company sells to monasteries; the nuns then sell the bread to churches.

“It’s a source of income for us, but at the same time it’s a service to the parishes in the diocese,” said Sister Marilyn McGillan of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Watertown, N.Y.

The family prides itself on having never had an argument over business. The relatives eat lunch together daily, and business talk almost always turns into discussions about New England sports teams.

“When you emphasize family, the business falls into place,” Brian said.