Will the Coronavirus Be the End of the Communion Cup? (2023)

Many Catholic churches have decided to stop offering consecrated wine.Photograph from Alamy

It is an everyday miracle, mysterious and beguiling, and it is replicated several thousand times over, at all hours, in churches that are beautiful and churches that are not. The priest consecrates the bread, and then he consecrates the wine, and there on the altar the meal becomes the body and blood of Christ. Then, just as Jesus broke bread and shared wine with the apostles at the Last Supper, believers rise from the pews, receive the host, eat it, and, one by one, drink the Precious Blood, putting their lips to the same cup.

That last part doesn’t happen these days. Churches are closed and services have been moved online, for one, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also advised against it. Before the pandemic, William Ouweleen had drunk from such a cup countless times. A vintner in the Finger Lakes region of New York, he used to attend mass and receive communion at St. Matthew Church, in Livonia, where the Precious Blood in the chalice had been a blush-colored wine that he’d made. Ouweleen runs a winery named O-Neh-Da, which makes sacramental wine that churches use to celebrate the Eucharist. The winery, which is next to Hemlock Lake—“o-neh-da” is the Seneca word for “hemlock”—is the go-to for Catholics in the Northeast. When Pope Francis visited New York City, in 2015, he used O-Neh-Da wine for a mass at Madison Square Garden.

In contrast to regular wine, which might be made with extra yeast, tannin powders, and flavorings, Communion wine must be “natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances,” according to Vatican instructions. So, last fall, Ouweleen, a self-described “hippie” who is fifty-eight and wears his hair in dreadlocks, did what he does every fall: he harvested forty acres’ worth of grapes, trucked them to his winery, crushed them, and allowed them to ferment with no additives. (Except, that is, for some added sulfites, just before bottling—a preservative sanctioned by the Vatican.)

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By springtime, he had fifty thousand gallons of wine in his cellar. This time of year, he would usually be filling fifteen hundred wine bottles per day, in order to deliver them to churches in New York and Pennsylvania, and to religious-goods stores as far away as Florida and Guam. But he isn’t doing that this year, because it would mean purchasing glass bottles to fill with wine that might not sell. Ouweleen doesn’t know when the churches will reopen. This past Friday, President Trump deemed houses of worship “essential” and asked all governors to allow them “to open right now, for this weekend,” but, in New York, houses of worship can only fully reopen in the last phase of the state’s four-part reopening plan, along with stadiums and amusement parks. Ouweleen is also not sure that, when they do reopen, they will continue to serve consecrated wine, which, in most of the country’s Catholic churches, is drunk from a chalice that is shared by the entire congregation.

So he decided to ask them. Last month, Ouweleen typed up a letter to the bishop in Albany, to ask if he had any foresight on the future of sacramental wine. A week later, still awaiting a reply, Ouweleen broadened his query, writing to more than a thousand parishes—all customers of his—to ask if they plan to distribute the Eucharist by chalice, once church services resume. In his letter to the priests, Ouweleen explained that O-Neh-Da had survived—by God’s grace—several wars, the Great Depression, and Prohibition, but, “the Good Lord helps those who help themselves, so we are taking an active role in planning for the other side of this pandemic.”

Ouweleen figured that the wine in his cellar would last for about a year before its taste started to fade. “I’ll know what to do with that wine when I know what to do,” he said. “This graceful hand of the unseen has been very present in my life, and I respect that.” In the meantime, he continued checking in on his vineyard. By September, his vines will have produced two hundred tons of grapes, which will yield another forty thousand gallons of wine. It was getting warm, and the vines were about to bud.

There are three major sacramental wineries in the United States: Mont La Salle and Cribari, both in California, and O-Neh-Da, in New York, which is the smallest and the oldest. Established in 1872 by Bishop Bernard McQuaid, the first bishop of Rochester, O-Neh-Da was originally run by seminarians, and, later, by monks. In 2002, it was purchased by Steven Goldstone, who’d recently retired as the C.E.O. of RJR Nabisco, the food and tobacco conglomerate, and who’d seen a notice in the Wall Street Journal advertising a winery for sale in the Finger Lakes. (Goldstone, a private pilot, liked to fly over the region in his plane.)

In 2007, there was another ad—this time, in the PennySaver, for a rental house on the O-Neh-Da Winery’s property, which would cost eight hundred and fifty dollars a month. Ouweleen responded to it; he and his wife, Lisa Woodhams, and his stepson, Jacob, were facing eviction from their home in Conesus. The family was continuously hard up—Ouweleen was the manager of an organic market that was trying (and failing) to compete with Wegmans—and they were searching for a gentler, more Christ-like life. (They wrote a prayer: “Land with a view / a ridge line or two … a place to grow / with maintenance kept low / sanctuary where / we reap what we sow.” “Divinity,” it concluded, “make it so.”) The rental, an old winemaker’s house built in the twenties, with three bedrooms, and a lot of bats in the attic, felt fated.

The family moved in and learned, upon their arrival, that the winery on the grounds wasn’t doing too well. (They had regular encounters with the winemaker, who kept knocking on their door, asking if they had any spare trash bags or light bulbs.) Ouweleen was also looking for a new job, so he called Goldstone and told him, “I think I’m supposed to be here to help you with this winery.”

Goldstone flew north to meet with Ouweleen, who had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on what he described as the brand’s “natural assets,” such as its long, almost romantic history of sequestered religious men ministering to its grapes. Ouweleen had no experience in wine-making, but, Goldstone said later, “It’s not like I had a long line of prestigious winemakers waiting to be interviewed for the job.” Goldstone decided, of Ouweleen and his family, that “they belong there.” The two men worked out an arrangement in which Ouweleen would run O-Neh-Dah. A year later, Woodhams joined him. (She’d been bartending and waiting tables until she was sure that this sacramental winery gig was going to work out.)

Together with one other full-time employee and several part-time staff, Ouweleen and Woodhams do the work of a hundred unpaid monks. Ouweleen plays Reggae for the fermenting grapes—“conscious music,” he said, “to encourage them”—and tastes and adjusts the wine. He also fixes the bottle-capper, and the crusher, and the labeller, and the filler, and the air-compressor, and the tractor, when they break. Woodhams pays the bills, answers the phones, puts together wholesale orders, and coördinates the family’s appearances at wine tastings. Friends help them bottle the wine.

“It’s like if a Catholic school lost all their nuns,” Ouweleen said. “It’s noble but unprofitable work.” This is true even when there’s no pandemic. (O-Neh-Da charges about eighty dollars for a case of twelve bottles of sacramental wine, and the average church customer orders twenty cases of wine a year.) But it has been a reliable source of income, which, for Ouweleen, feels nothing short of miraculous. In the spring, when the grapevines begin to sprout, the robins are loudest in the mornings and the woodpeckers are busiest in the evenings. In the fall, when the grapes are harvested—first the Rosette, then the Delaware—the lake reflects the orange of the trees. Every year is different but also the same. The family has been able to count on it.

And Ouweleen believes that he has finally found his vocation. “The mystery of wine becoming the Blood of Christ is lost in the modern day,” he said. “I’m out there spreading the good news, and I think it comes more powerfully from the lay people sometimes, rather than from the priest, whose job it is to say it.” Some weekends, when Ouweleen is on the road—he likes to hand-deliver wine cases to his customers, either in a beverage truck or in his 1993 Suburban—he’ll drop in on a new church for mass. When he first sits down in the pew, he’s not always sure whether the church is an O-Neh-Da customer. Then it comes time for communion, and when he sips the Precious Blood, he can tell right away. “I’ll think, ‘Oh that’s not too good!’ ” he said. “So, of course, I follow up with a sales call.”

The sacraments, wrote the French mystic Simone Weil, “involve a certain kind of contact with God, a contact mysterious but real.” How this mysterious contact is made varies by Christian denomination: most use wine, whereas others use substitutes, and though many use a communal chalice, some have taken to giving congregants their own cups. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses water, and, in 1912, they moved toward serving it in individual cups, having noticed that, when the communal cup reached the back of the church, it was often filled with hair. The Mormons doubled down on this directive after the 1918 flu. Methodists and Presbyterians may also use their own cups (and grape juice).

But while those denominations believe that communion is symbolic of Christ’s presence, Catholics believe in the “Real Presence,” by which the bread and the wine become his body and blood. For Catholics, disposable cups do not seem worthy of Christ’s blood; the Vatican suggests that vessels be made of “precious metal.” A church could, ostensibly, give a chalice to each congregant—or adopt a “bring-your-own-chalice” policy—but, even if this were feasible, individual chalices may present other challenges. “We believe that the wine becomes the blood of Christ,” said Father Andrew Menke, who directs the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.). “So the priest cleans the chalice very carefully. He doesn’t want drops going down the drain. He doesn’t want Christ’s blood in the sewer.”

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Stephen Dedalus wonders, “Why was the sacrament of the eucharist instituted under the two species of bread and wine if Jesus Christ be present body and blood, soul and divinity, in the bread alone and in the wine alone?” A valid question. Technically, Catholic churches do not need to offer their congregants the Precious Blood. Only the priest must celebrate as Jesus instructed, with both wine and bread; the laity receives the entirety of Christ by consuming either one, and for centuries they typically received just the bread. But, in 1963, the Second Vatican Council resolved that the congregation should also receive the Precious Blood, calling it a “more perfect form of participation.” Now it was clear, Judith Marie Kubicki, a retired professor of theology at Fordham, said, that “the laity is not the audience—they are the participants.” It was also just practical, Kimberly Belcher, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, said, noting that both alcoholics and the gluten-free could now receive communion.

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