HAVE YOU EVER wondered why it is that some parishes have communion hosts with a cross in the centre, and why some parishes don’t? I have, and have long speculated the reasons behind this, but it was not until a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the interior of the Carmelite monastery that these questions were finally answered.
After the official blessing of the newly renovated Carmelite monastery on Dec 5, I followed the unusually excited diocesan priests and seminarians into the "production" rooms of the Carmelite monastery. Here, 20,000-30,000 communion hosts are baked and cut everyday from Monday to Friday.
The Carmelite sisters proudly displayed their tools of the trade – sophisticated machines used to sift the wheat flour, form batter and bake it into the bread that would later, under the anointed hands of our priests, become the body of Christ at Mass.
Plain wheat flour is first put through the sifter to remove impurities. The clean flour is then mixed with ice water in a batter machine, before it is placed on the baking machines. The lids are closed and sealed while the bread is baked. A look at the underside of the lid reveals that up to 14 large hosts can be cut from one large disc of bread.
However, it is unusual that all 14 can be used, as the sisters have to ensure that these pass their strict quality control – each piece to be used for the large host must not have any breakage, especially on the lines of the designs. When asked what happened to the large hosts that do not pass quality control, Sister explained that they would either be cut into small hosts or used for breakfast.
After the bread is baked, it is very crispy and cannot immediately be cut. Sister then stores them in tins until they are ready to go through the cutting process.
In order to cut the bread, it must first be softened in the humidifier, a kind of metal cabinet with grilles. Sister usually leaves the bread out in the open air overnight, allowing the moisture in the air to soften the bread.
The next day, the bread is cut with a specialized machine that can cut up to 30 small hosts at one go. The large hosts have to be cut individually. About 20,000-30,000 small hosts, and 250-300 large hosts can be produced a day.
After the bread is cut, it must be dried thoroughly in the oven. Sister cannot wait too long before the drying process; otherwise the bread will start to spoil. Once the bread is thoroughly dried however, it can remain on the shelf for up to a year without spoiling.
A production of 20,000-30,000 hosts a day surely cannot be enough for the needs of the diocese which has about 300,000 Catholics? Indeed it is not enough, Sister tells us, which is why the supply of communion hosts for the diocese is supplanted with hosts made in Poland – the ones with a cross in the middle.
Once the hosts made by the sisters are ready and packed, it is sent to their distributor. In the past, it was the Catholic Commodity Services (formerly located at 55 Waterloo Street, 2nd level) that sold communion hosts to the parishes and Catholic organizations. However, Catholic Commodity Services ceased operations a few years ago and the distribution of communion hosts is now handled by former employees of the company.
Now I have the answers to my questions about communion hosts. If only I had remembered to ask Sister for the recipe! -By Daniel Tay