Baking altar bread: a Good Shepherd tradition

Sister Nellie Hawkins entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1962 and committed herself to a Contemplative Life. She has been baking altar bread ever since.

A member of the Contemplative Community in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, Sister Nellie rises at 7 a.m. in the convent every morning for prayers, Mass, and breakfast. She then goes downstairs and begins baking altar bread for some 300 customers.

This is her routine every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On Thursday she cleans the altar bread room and takes a break Friday through Sunday. She reserves her free days for making greeting cards, reading, dabbling on the computer, and taking mini-retreats.

Sister Nellie’s altar bread operation helps sustain the Good Shepherd contemplative lifestyle and enables the Sisters to participate directly in the sacred liturgy of the Church.

Recipe for baking altar bread

“I make the communion hosts and the priest consecrates them so they become the body of Christ, the Bread of Life. Without the hosts, priests would conduct a church service rather than celebrate a Mass,” Sr. Nellie said.

The Good Shepherd Contemplative Sisters have been baking altar bread for more than 150 years. Today, Sr. Nellie is the only Good Shepherd Sister in the Province of Mid-North America who is still baking altar bread for communion hosts.

The recipe for making the hosts is simple. Sister Nellie mixes a thin batter made from white or whole wheat flour and water and pours the batter onto a flat griddle. The griddle is embossed with a crucifix, a lily, and other religious iconography. The wafers bake for a few minutes and emerge as a flat sheet stamped with the designs.

The reed-thin wafer sheets are fragile. Sister Nellie said she has to be gentle when placing the sheets into a humidifier to moisten them overnight. If the hosts are not moistened in a humidifier, they could crumble when Sr. Nellie slips the sheets into the machine the next day that punches out the 2 1/8” disc-shaped wafers. Cheltenham community Sisters counting, bagging, boxing, and sending the hosts to parishes complete the task. A bag of 1,000 hosts costs about $20, plus shipping.

Providing hosts to local parishes

Baking altar bread gives Sister Nellie the deep pleasure of providing hosts to local parishes. She also inherited some customers in other regions of the United States when Contemplative Sisters in St. Louis and Detroit closed their convents and moved to elder care facilities.

Sister Nellie said she bakes 500 wafers on each of her three working days. She baked closer to 3,000 wafers each day before COVID kept people from attending Mass.

“I would imagine people will be going back to church soon and then I will be busy baking altar bread for more hosts once again,” Sr. Nellie said.

To set her intention for each workday, Sister Nellie said she blesses herself with the sign of the cross. She prays for parishioners and priests while mixing batter, running machines, and cutting the hosts. Sister Nellie said baking altar bread helps keep her mind focused on her purpose within the Church. She offers a prayer of gratitude to each customer before shipping the hosts.

Read more stories about Good Shepherd Contemplative and Apostolic Sisters in the province newsletter Items of Interest. 

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette is the Communications Coordinator for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. She is a career photojournalist who has served in various capacities of print, broadcast, and corporate communications. Jeanette is devoted to creation and is particularly focused on saving pollinators and other wildlife species and their habitat. She is an ethical vegan and created the website veganstoryteller.com