With permission from their superiors, last year the pair, who had since been joined by a novice, Kathy Becker, delved more deeply into their work, which included making a call to McManus at the USCCB liturgy office.
“They were thrilled to hear we were working on this,” Sister Lynn said. “They’d been working on it too, and they sent us what they had.”
But there was a catch. The bishops’ eager support came with a July deadline.
With only a couple of months to go, Sister Lynn’s experimenting took on more urgency, while her hope faded.
“I’d been working with two different starches,” she said, holding back an inevitable smile. “One of them was a mess. It ran all over the cooking plate, and it came out like lace. With the other starch I could get something that looked like a host, but it tasted terrible and it was rubbery. I was about ready to give up.”
Sister Jane joined her later that night and with utter disregard for scientific methodology, said, “Why don’t we just mix the two together?”
The result was even more horrifying.
Sister Lynn declared the batter a failure. “It was sticky and horrible. We couldn’t get it off the spoon or our fingers.”
In frustration she globbed the epoxy-like mess onto the waffle iron, and the two began cleaning up. Before turning out the lights, Sister Lynn realized she’d forgotten to clean the gunk off the waffle iron.
“When I opened it, there was this perfect bread - well, perfect in our world,” she said with a laugh. “We had tasted a lot of horrible breads.”
But what they gazed upon in disbelief was a round wafer, baked evenly, with a nice texture and crispness.
“We were speechless,” Sister Lynn recalled.
Like a pair of monastic mad scientists, they immediately gobbled down their creation.
“It was delicious,” Sister Jane said, reliving the excitement a year later. “It was crisp, light and it tasted good. Personally, we think it tastes better than our regular altar bread.”
Gluten content: .01 percent.
Safe enough, according to Fasano and other medical experts, for consumption by almost all celiac suffers. But would it pass the scrutiny of the church’s hierarchy?
The answer came last July. The recipe had been approved by the Vatican, and subsequently by the U.S. bishops, as part of a new set of norms for celebrating the Eucharist. The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy deemed the sisters’ bread “the only true, low-gluten altar bread . approved for use at Mass in the United States,” with a lower gluten level than a host developed recently in Italy and approved by the Vatican and the scientific committee of the Italian Celiac Association. The sisters also have applied to the U.S. government for a patent on their recipe.
Fasano called the sisters’ accomplishment “very wonderful news,” but added that celiac sufferers should still consult with their doctors before consuming the new hosts. In rare cases even .01 percent is still too much.
There probably won’t be a financial windfall from the sales of low-gluten bread. Novice Kathy is baking about 1,600 hosts a week, although as word gets out sales are expected to increase.
But both Sister Jane and Sister Lynn said profits were never the point. What motivated them through the long nights of research, what enabled them to force down awful-tasting failure after awful-tasting failure, were the phone calls, letters and e-mails from people of faith longing for the Body of Christ in both species.
“It is such a joy,” Sister Jane says of the response from celiac sufferers.
“We hear over and over again how much people appreciate what we have done, but I want to thank them,” Sister Lynn said. “This has been such an inspiration. To witness their desire has increased my own desire for the Eucharist.”
Recently the mother of a 12-year-old boy with celiac disease called the sisters.
Her son, she said, talked all the time about being a priest some day, but she never had the heart to tell him that door was probably closed because of something beyond his control.
“When I learned of your bread,” she said, “I knew the door was open again.”