14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, 3 November 2022 — The monastery of the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Saint Teresa in Havana produces most of the communion wafers, or “hosts,” consumed by the island’s Catholics. On Wednesday the nuns announced in an online statement that they would not be able to manufacture or sell any more of them, paralyzing a distribution system that has been operating for decades.
“We’ve been working with what little flour that was left but we’ve already run out of that stockpile,” wrote the nuns, for whom the sale of hosts was one of their sources of income.
The announcement has aroused the solidarity of many Catholics on the island as well as of Cuban exiles in Spain and the United States, who have taken the opportunity to send raw materials to the Havana convent. The sisters have also set up a phone line for anyone who might want to help.
“Since production has been halted, we’ll have to stretch the existing hosts, almost like [the biblical parable of] multiplying the loaves,” says Fr. Jose Luis Preyo, a Spanish priest working in the town of Caibarién, in Villa Clara province. “We’ll have to divide each host into two or three pieces until the supply is replenished.”
Pueyo explains that priests from every parish goes to their local bishops once a month to pick up hosts for their congregations. “It’s not a product that will keep indefinitely,” he points out. “It’s better not to wait too long before consuming it. That’s why production and supply have to be ongoing.”
As for the Carmelite nuns of Havana — they were the subject of the 2015 Spanish documentary “A Million Hosts” — he describes their work as “doing a favor for the island’s dioceses.” The money they receive for the hosts also allows the convent to be economically self-sufficient. “If this turns out to be a chronic problem, which seems unlikely, we would have to import hosts from overseas, as we do now with sacramental wine. We would also have to find dioceses or parishes to produce them, which has already happened to some extent, or to consecrate ordinary bread,” says the priest.
As for the latter option, Pueyo says that this could only be done with bread made from wheat flour without any additives or fillers, something impossible to find in Cuba.
“The hosts are distributed on a monthly basis,” says Pedro, a lay administrator in Villa Clara. “Every diocese orders the hosts it needs from the nuns, picks them up in Havana and pays a modest fee to help support the sisters.
Pedro speculates that the host shortage will lead to rumors about the Catholic church’s relationship with the government. He claims the nuns have an agreement with the regime to supply them with flour but that the government has not lived up to its end of the deal.
“It’s worth noting that Pope Francis does not supply the flour, as some people think, nor is it his responsibility. Every country has its own system for producing and distributing hosts.” He says some hosts are also produced at the local level in Cuba though he admits he does not know how this is done.
Sebastian, a layperson working for the diocese of Matanzas, claims the Carmelites produce all the hosts consumed by the western half of the island. “Years ago the nuns were able to modernize their operation. It’s not ordinary bread. It’s a wafer whose dough must be cooled in a very exacting way, then placed on very hot metal sheets, where it is shaped and cut,” he explains.
Sebastian does not believe a shortage of communion wafers will disrupt religious life in Cuba but he cautions, “It will severely impact the lives of thousands of Catholics who attend Sunday mass.”
He also points out that Catholics are not the only ones affected. “Evangelicals, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians rely on the archdiocese to provide them with hosts for their own religious services.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve faced a crisis but, so far, we’ve always been able to overcome any obstacle. But this time there’s an announcement that speaks louder that a thousand words about the hardships we are facing. It is as though the old saying ‘We don’t even have bread for communion’ were literally true.”
Shortages of raw materials have significantly affected churches and church-related endeavors. Sebastian recalls that, some time ago, Vida Cristiana — a nearly 60-year old Jesuit publication that was one of those which published the Carmelite nuns’ announcement — faced a serious paper shortage. Dozens of other Cuban religious publications faced the same problem, forcing them to delay printing or to shut down entirely.
“Another problem is the electricity shortage. What kind of manufacturing operations can survive blackouts that last for more than twelve hours?” he asks.
Although the protests over shortages and blackouts seem to have subsided, many people in the country’s interior still suffer from long power outages. These hardships, along with the imprisonment of demonstrators and worsening living conditions, have led the island’s priests and nuns to denounce the situation.
Alberto Reyes, a priest in Camaguey province, posted a message of support to the demonstrators: “Given the unacceptable lack of electricity in Esmeralda, if anyone is going to hold a peaceful protest, let me know so I can ring the church bells.”
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