Cathedral Candle Company’s factory in Syracuse, New York

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In an age when disruptive technologies are upending business models from newspapering to taxi-driving, the family behind a 119-year-old company in upstate New York is glad it stuck with candle-making.

For five generations, the Steigerwald family and its Cathedral Candle Company have been bucking trends even among candle makers. While others target as large a retail market as possible, Cathedral Candle makes nothing but church candles. That was the niche Jacob Steigerwald chose to pursue in 1897, and his descendants find no reason to diverge from it.

“From year to year, sales are very steady,” said Mark Steigerwald, Jacob’s great-grandson and vice president of the company. “And aside from the logistics and the economic view, there’s always been a passion for what we do, a passion our employees bring to what we do, through distribution and service to the church.”

Demand has been so consistent that Cathedral Candle opened a new office last year in Syracuse. That’s in addition to a factory that churns out millions of candles each year on the original site and employs 70 full-time, year-round workers.

Though candles ceased to be a household necessity in the 19th century, they continue to play an important symbolic and atmospheric role whenever Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and other liturgical Christians gather for worship. Most candles are not required liturgically, but they are so beloved and traditional that worship would seem incomplete without them. And that’s been good for Cathedral Candle’s longevity.

With Advent coming soon, Cathedral’s customers have been gearing up for one of the most candle-rich seasons in the church year. They have stocked up on Advent wreath candles, for instance, and not just for use in sanctuaries. Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Church of the Advent in Boston are among parishes that will soon offer workshops in which families make Advent wreaths to light in their homes through the season.

Because Advent, like Lent, is a penitential season, Church of the Advent retains an appreciation for humility and darkness before Christmas, sacristan Stephen Sampson said. But come Christmas Eve, the Anglo-Catholic parish pulls out all the stops.

Advent “is a time for reflection and to welcome the Light of the world,” he said. “So I feel it’s appropriate that all the candles, starting at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season, should be brand new.”

Cathedral finds its wares consistently in demand, Steigerwald says, in part because church customers have expectations that most mass-market candle makers cannot satisfy. Among the key specifications: beeswax.

For churches, beeswax is more than a traditional ingredient that’s been used for centuries in worship. Roman Catholics in particular value how beeswax comes only from virgin bees, which means the symbolic Light of the world is cloaked in virginity, just as Christ was at birth. Roman Catholic protocol once required candles made from 100-percent beeswax. Today’s requirement calls for at least 51-percent beeswax. Cathedral sells both types, and the 100-percent variety costs 49 percent more.

Episcopal congregations have no beeswax requirements, but many opt nevertheless for certain special candles (altar or Paschal candles, for instance) to be made from 51-percent beeswax. For some, it’s a practical matter as altar guilds appreciate the physical properties of beeswax. It’s consumed by flame (no drippings). It burns evenly and slowly, which makes a candle last a long time. And even if many Episcopalians do not emphasize the virginity aspect, they still find important symbolism in the ingredient.

“One of the symbols is, it represents the community because it takes a hive of bees to make beeswax,” said Lynn Hendricks, president of the National Altar Guild Association and a member of the altar guild at All Saints Church in Homewood, Alabama.

A steady customer base has been crucial for Cathedral Candle, but that’s not been the only factor in its long-term stability. Tried-and-true systems for sales and production, including a prayerful and mission-centered approach in the factory, have been key as well.

Cathedral still uses machinery made more than 80 years ago to the specifications of Jacob Steigerwald, a German immigrant who learned the trade before hanging his shingle. When parts wear out, the company hires a machinist to custom-manufacture new ones. But that does not happen very often.

“The nice thing about working with wax is it’s not an abrasive material,” Mark Steigerwald said. “So the equipment holds up quite well.”

Because Cathedral Candle offers more than 2,000 distinct units in its catalogue, not everything can be mass-produced in molds by machines. The less commonly ordered candles are still dipped by hand. When they’re ready for decoration, they’re delivered to a workspace shared by six Roman Catholic women who regard what they do as an offering to God.

Dominica Oliveri leads the decorating team. She’s worked for Cathedral Candle for 20 years, almost since she first arrived in the United States from Italy. She loves worshiping at St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church in Baldwinsville and seeing her handiwork on the altar. She’ll sometimes lean over and tell the person beside her: “I made that one.”

“I know it’s for God, so I work so hard,” she said. “I will do everything, making sure all of the work gets done.”

It’s work that brings milestones of satisfaction. Oliveri recalls spending extra hours last year weaving silver leaf and gold leaf that would adorn custom candles for Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. She beamed with pride when Masses were televised with her team’s candles on the Holy Father’s altar.

“I called my family in Italy, my kids,” she said. “I said to them, ‘Go watch the TV.’” Consistency in location has enhanced Cathedral Candle’s stability across the decades. The facility is in a neighborhood that’s long drawn immigrants — first from Germany, then Italy and Southeast Asia — and offers them an employment opportunity. More than half of the company’s employees live close enough that they can walk to work, Mark Steigerwald said.

Once candles are finished, they’re sold through a network of distributors who call on congregations individually and maintain business relationships that span generations. Tonini Church Supply Company in Louisville has sold Cathedral Candle wares for more than 100 years.

“We’ve got five generations of Toninis that have been working here,” said Richard Tonini, co-owner of his family’s distributorship. Tonini’s five-generation partnership with Cathedral Candle, Tonini said, testifies to their mutual regard for the church and their respective families’ histories in enterprise.

In candle-making as in other industries, adaptation to change and challenge has been necessary for survival. Hi-tech tools now track inventory and keep production on track. New machinery hums alongside the old. Yet it’s largely because some things do not change that Cathedral Candle can give thanks for its solid 21st-century business.

“The church is changing, and the world is changing,” said May Sherrod, a longtime member of the altar guild at Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh. “But there will always be candles as far as the Episcopal Church is concerned.”

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