By Barb Arland-Fye
A search for the “bake ladies” began in March with the death of 88-year-old Carmelite Sister Catherine Luth of the Holy Family. A member of the Discalced Carmelite Order (OCD), she’d been in charge of altar bread production years ago at the Carmelite Monastery when it was located on a hill overlooking the city of Bettendorf. Making Communion wafers for distribution to parishes throughout the Davenport Diocese provided an important source of income for the Carmelite Sisters.
Assisting these cloistered nuns 40 or more years ago were volunteers who became known as “bake ladies.” As many as 100 volunteers assisted the nuns, according to a 1972 article in the Times-Democrat newspaper. A number of volunteers were stay-at-home moms who spent a couple of hours at a time in a kitchen-like room in the monastery baking and cutting altar bread. Daughters and even granddaughters of older bake ladies assisted with this sacred labor.
After Sr. Catherine died, the community’s prioress, Sister Lynne Therese Elwinger, O.C.D., called The Catholic Messenger to suggest a story about the bake ladies, whom she had heard about from Sr. Catherine and other Carmelites. Sr. Lynne doesn’t remember the names of bake ladies she’s met, but several years ago the daughter of one made an unexpected landing in a hot air balloon in the garden of the monastery, now located in Eldridge. “So this is where you moved!” the daughter exclaimed. “My mother was a bake lady.”
Some of the bake ladies are still living in the area. Pat Sundholm, a mother of nine, was among members of a church circle at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf who began volunteering as bake ladies at the monastery up the hill. Pat said she coordinated volunteers’ schedules and also filled in as needed.
“Sr. Catherine had this big machine — about two feet in diameter — it was like a waffle iron with little circles in it. She would make the batter. That was important because if it was made wrong, it would stick,” Pat recalls. The baked sheets — each about the size of a pizza — were placed in a humidifier and later cut into small hosts, packaged and delivered to parishes throughout the Davenport Diocese. Scraps of dough, from the raw batter that overflowed the griddle, were put in cardboard boxes and set aside for a farmer to feed to his livestock.
Two of Pat’s then-teenage daughters used a machine that cut out the round wafers from the large baked sheets. Two of her then-teenage sons helped deliver 100-pound sacks of flour to the Sisters. Daughter Cathi recalled how utterly quiet it was in the room where they made altar bread; her sister Juli remembers eating her mistakes.
One of Pat’s sons discovered during a delivery to the monastery that the 100-pound flour sack had a hole in it. He flipped the bag over so the hole wouldn’t show and placed it on “the turn” — a revolving cylinder where the Sisters could retrieve items without having to be seen by anyone. On the other side, the Sisters flipped the bag over to drop it into a garbage container set aside for the flour. Pat’s son told her he heard the nuns screaming on the other side, and then there was silence. “One of the nuns said, ‘We are all white back here. If you have another bag with a hole in it, put it on top so we can see it there,’” Pat recounted.
The work was fun, and Sr. Catherine was very good with the volunteers. “She was always smiling. Her standard answer was, ‘but it could have been worse,’ when volunteers shared concerns and problems with her,” Pat said.
“It wasn’t just making the altar breads, at least not for me,” said Geri Henninger. “It was almost a ministry, and we were kind of bonded with the nuns up there. They were a big part of our lives. And we bonded with one another …
“I realize now what a tremendous privilege it was in having a part in making that unleavened bread that in the future would be on the altar and become the body of Christ. Think of what we were doing!”
She and the other bake ladies “had a window on a world that wasn’t to be seen everywhere. That wasn’t to be experienced just everywhere,” Geri said. “Not only did we make altar breads, but we had a sense of the life that the Sisters lived and their love for God and the total giving of their lives for him. It put us in touch with people who were definitely in our opinion set aside for our Lord. And yet they became a very integral part of our lives.”
Teresa Jackovich felt she was doing something good by baking altar bread. But she also recalled that “Sister said she didn’t know how long they’d be doing that because the flour was getting so expensive.”
Carmelite Sister Anita Schuman of the Baltimore Carmelite Monastery was a member of the Bettendorf monastery when the nuns discerned it was time to stop production. “We began to realize the altar bread business was beginning to run the house. We didn’t want that to happen … we’re a praying community. If it was infringing on our prayer time, that wasn’t good.”
The bake ladies were simply grateful to have been of help when needed. “It was a wonderful thing we did. I think I never missed when I was scheduled to volunteer,” said Mary Frances Vogel. Baking the bread that would become the body of Christ was a sacrifice for a busy mom, but one she was willing to make. She’d prepare dinner ahead for her family and then baked from 5-6:30 p.m. She was among the bake ladies who attended Sr. Catherine’s funeral in March.