The Cavanagh Company of Greenville, R. I. grew out of plea for assistance made by local priests in 1943. John F. Cavanagh Sr. and his son John went to meet with the retreat master, the Reverend Peter Dolan, to discuss the plight of parish nuns. Father Dolan pointed out that the equipment used by the nuns for the baking of altar breads, the distributed during Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, was antiquated and sadly in need of repair. John Cavanagh Sr., then in his sixties and an inventor of some merit, took up the challenge. He readily converted waffle irons, humidifiers, mixers and cutters into tools for the baking and cutting of the unleavened Communion offering. Cavanagh's kindness, skill and ingenuity would lead to the creation of a company that now spans four generations, and represents the largest supplier of altar bread and wafer in the world.
John Sr.'s sons, John F. Jr. and Paul, eventually became part of the new operation. Both were fine artists and portrait painters who would apply their considerable talents to the growing company. In 1946, the brothers formed a partnership to produce the machines which their father had designed, keeping John Cavanagh Sr. on to advise them.
The Second Vatican Council 1962 "really changed everything," said Brian Cavanagh, Paul's son and CEO of the company. The Catholic Church, like so much of society during that decade, re-evaluated its symbols. The Church's Council of Trent, which convened during the mid-sixteenth century to codify Catholic dogma, reaffirmed the significance of the seven celebrated sacraments. Communion wafers at that time became ethereal both in symbol and in substance: the wafers were one thirty-thousandth of an inch thick, notes Cavanagh, shiny and "white like milk glass," and were baked to dissolve on the tongue. These rarefied wafers fell out of favor during Vatican II, with an impetus toward celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist with wafers that more closely resembled bread.
Peter, also Paul’s son, brought his grandfather's love of invention to his new situation. He served as head of research and development for the firm. His grandfather, who loved experimenting with gadgets, had a list of 120 or so patents to his name, including a mechanical stapler, a roofing hammer, and the "bar switch" that can be found on lamps in many homes today. During the 1950s, long before the advent of fiber optics and sophisticated technological innovations, John Cavanagh Sr. spent hours perfecting a page turning machine for paraplegics. Cavanagh's inspiration for the devise, operated with the blink of an eye, came from a chance encounter with a hospital patient. His grandson Peter also branched out in unexpected ways, inventing both a tennis ball machine called the "Cannon" and a retrieval system for tennis balls.
"We have more than enough to keep our hands full here," Brian Cavanagh says of the brothers' various creative departures from their main occupation, that of bread baking. The practicalities of producing and packaging altar breads present difficulties not encountered by other bakers. Unlike ordinary wafers and biscuits, altar breads and require special dampening techniques to prevent the breads from crumbling. Peter constantly made improvements to the existing equipment in the past to create a much more consistent communion wafer. Due to the uniqueness of the product, demands on company designers are particularly intense. Machines used for commercial baking must be modified to accommodate the bread's special characteristics. Peter's abilities also established Episcopalian and Lutheran churches as clients, when he developed a packaging machine designed to those denominations' design specifications. Company personnel still operate three of the machines, designed to produce rolls of 100 breads per second. Over time, the firm also added Southern Baptist churches to its client list.
Peter’s sons, Daniel, Andrew, and Lucas are involved in the family business representing the fourth generation of family members. Daniel is the COO of the company and has the task of handling all aspects of production, including machine design, equipment maintenance and also heads all research and development. Andrew is the General Manager and Lucas is the Marketing Director.