Chicago Celiac Catholics celebrate communion in the low-gluten way

By Ellen Kobe

On a Saturday evening in January, Carol Shilson, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park participated in a common experience among Roman Catholics: the Eucharist. As the sun went down and the church’s stained glass windows turned from vibrant colors to darkness, the Rev. Jeremy Dixon consecrated the communion — turning the bread and the wine into what Catholics believe is the actual body and blood of Christ.

From the left-side pews, Shilson made her way down the main aisle with the rest of the congregation, which sang a hymn, folded their hands and strode back to their seats while the wafers melted in their mouths and the burning sensation of wine seeped down their throats.

Holy Communion is a shared experience for Shilson and other Catholics. They are only required to go through these motions once a year, although the sacrament is more routine for many who go to Mass every Sunday or even daily.

But for Shilson, receiving traditional communion is a health hazard. She has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder activated by ingesting a gluten protein in wheat.

Before Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park, Carol Shilson, a Celiac Catholic and executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, places her pyx of low-gluten communion on a table with the rest of the communion in the back of the church. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)
Before Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park, Carol Shilson, a Celiac Catholic and executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, places her pyx of low-gluten communion on a table with the rest of the communion in the back of the church. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)

Unfortunately for Shilson and others who practice gluten-free diets, the inclusion of wheat in communion is required to legitimize the sacrament, with the belief that Jesus used wheat bread during the Last Supper. But as treatment for Celiac disease has become more prominent, the Catholic Church has found ways alter its doctrine to fit the needs of those who must maintain this specific diet. Today, there are several Chicago-area Catholic churches that accommodate these Mass attendees who have struggled to practice their faith because of their health condition.

Before low-gluten communion was permitted to be served in Catholic Mass in the early 2000s, some who practiced the religion might have felt like Chicago Catholic Julie Priest has before. As a Catholic who tries to maintain a gluten-free diet for health reasons other than Celiac, Priest has received low-gluten bread at The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in University Village/Little Italy for the past five years. But she has experienced uncomfortable moments when visiting other parishes that don’t offer low-gluten host, or communion.

“It’s embarrassing to walk up and then you try to figure out how to tell the priest, no I’m not taking the host, I’m [just] taking the chalice,” she said. “It’s very embarrassing.”

In a later email message, Priest said: “The lack of communion options or the [un]willingness to offer [low-gluten communion] can feel not only inhospitable, but arrogant after a while.”

Inventing a low-gluten wafer

Now, many who practice gluten-free diets are able to consume communion with the services of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a monastic community based in Clyde, Missouri. The group has been making altar breads for more than 100 years and began selling their low-gluten product in 2004. Bags of 30 pieces of low-gluten communion are sold to churches and individuals for $5.25 each.

Developing the low-gluten product has been a successful business venture for them. Last year, the Benedictine Sisters sold 26,665 bags of low-gluten communion to about 7,000 customers, according to Sister Lynn Marie D’Souza, manager of the Altar Bread Department. This is nearly 20,000 more bags than they sold in 2007.

However, it was a long, experimental road to get there.

D’Souza said that the Benedictine Sisters began receiving requests to have a product of this sort made in the 1980s. The group started baking it with spelt flour, an ingredient they thought would be suitable for people with Celiac. However, the Benedictine Sisters realized that it also had gluten in it.

They continued experimenting with other ingredients before stumbling upon the moneymaker: a low-wheat starch that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested they try in the summer of 2003.

At the time, there was ongoing discussion about men with Celiac being ordained priests in the Catholic Church. On July 24 of that year, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — who was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time — released a letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, giving Catholics permission to use low-gluten hosts for the Eucharist as long as they contained at least some wheat. It also allowed laypeople to receive the sacrament of Communion by solely taking the wine.

With this news, the Benedictine Sisters began using the wheat starch.

“We thought it wasn’t going to work,” D’Souza said. “We thought it was too sticky, too messy, but then it ended up baking beautifully.”

The Benedictine Sisters began simply, first by baking the hosts on a waffle iron. Dots of batter lined up as if on a griddle. But this method couldn’t keep up with the amount of orders by 2012. Another community of nuns who also made altar bread shut down their operations around this time and donated their equipment to the Benedictine Sisters, who were not able to ramp up their production.

Effects of gluten host on Celiac Catholics

A slice of host is immeasurably thin and barely the diameter of a circle made by touching your pointer finger to your thumb. It’s confounding to think that eating this small amount of wheat at Mass could affect one’s health.

Shilson, the woman who participated in the Eucharist at St. Vincent de Paul, said it absolutely does.

How to use low-gluten host

• Store, handle and distribute the hosts separately from the other wheat hosts. Those with Celiac disease can be harmed through cross contamination.

• Freeze the low-gluten hosts in an air-tight container.

• Use the products in six months.

• Use one pyx for low-gluten hosts only.

• It is recommended that those with Celiac do not drink the wine — leftover wheat particles could have contaminated it.

“Repeated exposure is a problem with Celiac disease,” said Shilson, who also happens to be executive director at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. “You may not even know it’s going on.”

The Benedictine Sisters’ recipe of wheat starch and water creates a single host that has a gluten content of 0.01 percent or 100 parts per million, which was confirmed when they sent samples to the American Institute of Baking. The idea is that it has a small enough amount of gluten to not affect those with Celiac while keeping the tradition of the sacrament of Eucharist.

The Food and Drug Administration deems food completely gluten free if they are less than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is 80 parts per million less than the Benedictine Sister’s low-gluten communion. However, hosts that are completely gluten-free — which include brands such as Ener-G and The Cavanagh Company that make them for other Christian denominations — are not valid for the Catholic Church’s sacrament.

Shilson said that for food with 20 parts per million of gluten to be dangerous for those with Celiac, one would have to eat approximately a half pound of food. So a small wafer of 100 parts per million should not activate the autoimmune disease, according to Shilson.

On the other hand, Andrea McCarthy, a Chicago-based health and food coach who specializes in gluten-free living, said that she wouldn’t recommend that those with Celiac disease or other gluten intolerances eat the host. She said it could cause any of 250 symptoms to flare up, including migraine, joint pain, fatigue, inflammation or fogginess. However, she noted that breaking off 1/5 of the host would be ideal, as it equals the FDA’s recommended 20 parts per million.

Popularity grows for low-gluten wafers

Nonetheless, low-gluten communion has become more and more common in Chicago Catholic churches. Among the parishes that serve, there are common trends: Their congregations began asking for it in the mid-2000s, they only have a few parishioners who receive it each weekend and their parishioners let the priest know before Mass if they want to receive low-gluten host.

Twelve Chicago-area churches provide low-gluten communion for their parishioners and guests from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. St. Vincent de Paul also serves low-gluten bread, but purchases it elsewhere. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)

Shilson and the Rev. Dixon have a similar procedure at St. Vincent de Paul. Shilson brings her own communion in a pyx, a tiny, host-sized box. If the pyx arrives at the front of the altar with the rest of the communion in preparation of the sacrament, the Rev. Dixon knows Shilson will be making her way up the aisle.

On the particular Sunday mentioned previously, there was a slight hiccup in the routine. The volunteers who brought the communion from the back of the church to the altar did not take the pyx with them. When Shilson arrived at the front of the altar, the Rev. Dixon apologized. He did not know where her low-gluten communion was.

She didn’t receive communion that week, and although Shilson said it didn’t bother her in the slightest, the mishap is a good example of just how many hoops low-gluten communion receivers must jump through in order to practice their religion and maintain their health.

The Rev. Richard Prendergast at St. Josaphat Parish in Lincoln Park said that moments like this are few and far between, but that they usually are a result of miscommunication.

“I don’t sense a lot of awkwardness,” he said. “It’s only awkward if they forgot to tell us.”

But Catholics who need low-gluten communion said that they generally feel much better about their religion now that there are options for them in the Eucharist.

“You feel more apart of the community if it’s publicly acknowledged that such a thing exists,” Shilson said.

And, to Priest, they’re more flavorful.

“You can taste the difference,” Priest said. “They don’t taste like cardboard. They’re very thin, but they’re solid enough that I don’t feel like I’m being deprived because my host if different than someone else’s.”

Joanne Tishka, communications coordinator at St. Symphorosa Catholic Church in Clearing on the Southwest Side, said that it’s the goal of her parish to be all include all parishioners and guests in the Eucharist.

“If we didn’t have it, they wouldn’t be able to receive, and we want everyone to be able to receive,” she said. “We make it work because that is what they need, and we try to accommodate.”

Photo at top: Carol Shilson approaches the Rev. Jeremy Dixon at the altar of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park to receive her low-gluten communion. On this Saturday evening at the end of January, Shilson wasn’t able to receive her communion as a result of a miscommunication between the volunteers and the priest. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)