This article first appeared in the Morrison County Record and is republished with permission. This is twelth in a series of articles on the history of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
For the past 124 years, the Altar Bread Department at St. Francis Convent has distributed altar breads — the small wafers (also called hosts) — to churches throughout Minnesota and many places across the United States. This ministry began when the community started in 1891 and is the Franciscan Sisters’ longest, continuous running ministry.
The first altar breads were made for the sisters themselves. By 1910, the sisters were sending altar breads beyond their convent, and by 1915, the sisters were baking altar breads for 15 parishes. Sister Gertrude Beauvais was working in the Altar Bread Room at this time and used an iron baker that was heated on a wood stove; moist cloths were used for steaming the baked sheets, and cookie cutters formed the delicate bread.
Sister Frances Walz directed the Altar Bread Room from 1927-1954. At that time, the equipment was in very poor condition. Sister Frances said, “But with God’s help, we accomplished what we were asked to do.” The sisters filled tin cans with boiling water and covered them with cloths to hold the moisture in the cabinet, replacing the boiling water as it cooled. Sister Frances later designed steamers (larger wooden cabinets) with holes in the shelves. The cutting machine was turned by hand; hosts were cut one by one and counted one by one, then put into boxes. As time went on more modern equipment was purchased, including an electric cutter and better steamers.
In 1950, the sisters were still mixing the batter by hand using a regular household beater which, because of the thick batter, kept burning out. This prompted the sisters to look for a specialty mixer to help mix the flour and water batter. The flour had to be very finely ground and then carefully strained and cleaned. The batter was the consistency of cake batter. The first bakers resembled waffle irons.
Sister Alma Barthel took charge of the Altar Bread Room from 1956-1961. She said, “It would be too expensive if we had to buy the boxes for mailing the hosts, so we make our own. Stores give us their old posters and we turn them into boxes. Each box will hold a certain number of hosts. That makes it easier than if we had to count the number we put in a box.”
It wasn’t until 1967, that parishes were billed for altar breads. Many of the parishes were poor and this was the sisters’ contribution to the people.
Sister Josephine Brake said, “For every host that you make, you make contact with a person.”
The ministry continued to expand. In 1987, 8,000 pounds of white flour was used along with 3,000 pounds of whole wheat flour. In 2004, over 40,000 altar breads were produced weekly. Sisters Anne Furnstahl and Adella Blonigen distributed approximately 3.5 million altar breads annually to some 150 customers.
In 2005, the sisters discontinued the actual baking of the altar breads, but Sisters Anne and Adella continued distributing altar breads to parishes until the end of 2015. Sister Anne was director of the Altar Bread Department from 1974-2015; she has seen many changes over the years and has loved being part of the altar bread ministry. She has given tours of the altar bread room to hundreds of children preparing for their First Communion.