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Daughters of St. Paul spread message, one tweet at a time

A recent IndieGoGo fund-raiser, started by Sister Anne Joan Flanagan, raised $7,000 to turn the ministry’s books into audio books.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The comforting hum of the Heidelberg Perfector printing presses was a constant in the convent, except on Sundays.

It was as familiar as the murmur of prayers in the chapel. As steady as the stream of nuns into wooden pews.

Enormous sheets of paper emerged onto pallets as glossy magazines or colorful children's books. The scent of ink wafted through the book bindery. The stacks of Catholic literature filled bookstores around the world.

For years, the shiny metal presses were maintained by ink-stained hands that spent mornings clutching rosaries. This devotion to evangelism remains unchanged for the Daughters of St. Paul.


For the past 100 years, outreach via new and innovative media has been at the core of their vocation. What has evolved in recent years is the way they carry out their mission.

The #medianuns (their Twitter hashtag of choice) of Jamaica Plain partake in spiritual conversations every day. Their podcasts, blog posts, Facebook updates, tweets, and writings on modern media reach followers worldwide.

"Our founder, Blessed James Alberione, had this sense that whatever the new [technology] was you grab it and use it for the gospel," said Sister Helena Burns, a Pauline stationed in Toronto who originally hails from Belmont. "He had a very comprehensive vision. . . . It was not all religion, religion and preachy, preachy."

In honor of the order's centenary year, a documentary about Alberione debuted this month. Today he is known as the "Media Apostle," though Pope John Paul II called him "the
first apostle of the new evangelization." The film, which took seven years, is a first for the order and was written and directed by Burns, who studied screenwriting at UCLA. It can be purchased or rented at Mediaapostle.com and streamed online.

In lessons she teaches on media literacy, Burns looks at intention and consumption in this world of endless information. Are they using social media for entertainment and socializing? Are they using it to minister? Both?


On her blog, Burns is known for her movie reviews laden with social commentary. Over Valentine's Day, she took a hard look at "Fifty Shades of Grey" and made some alternative film suggestions. Her Twitter account, @SrHelenaBurns, just passed the 20,000-followers mark.

"What seems interesting and maybe a little unusual is the conservative Protestant churches have been on the vanguard of the whole electronic revolution going all the way back to televangelism," said Dudley Rose, associate dean for Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. "In some ways there has been a certain suspicion among the more mainline or progressive churches that somehow you cheat or dilute the message by moving into more popular media."

Following the example of their founder, these nuns embrace new technology. On any given day, divine petitions could be tweeted in 140 characters or said aloud. Retreats at the convent and feast days are celebrated and honored in the chapel and online. Instagram captures the daily life of a Pauline with filtered photos and the occasional biblical meme.

The 80 sisters between the ages of 23 and 99 share a verdant hill with a flock of wild turkeys who also happen to inhabit the acreage along St. Paul Avenue in Jamaica Plain. The nunnery looks more like an industrial factory than a place of prayer.

Behind aging brick walls sits the cornerstone of the religious order's publishing house: Pauline Books and Media. There is a sound and video studio, meeting rooms, and office space where the sisters discuss digital strategy. Warehouse-size rooms are full of books to be loaded up and shipped out. The former press room is now a garage filled with odds and ends next to images of Jesus. It was a business decision to get rid of the presses. They now outsource printing and binding.


In a recent IndieGoGo fund-raiser, prayers were offered to Gabriel, the patron saint of audiovisual technology, for his provision. The nuns recognized a need. Customers were requesting audiobooks of a few of the publishing house's most popular reads.

The online event brought in almost $7,000. Perks included a St. Michael bumper sticker, a saintly zipper medal, or convent-kitchen fudge for a $100 donation. They just started a new fund-raiser for a shrink wrap machine to package CDs.

Sister Marie Paul Curley, 48, didn't always trust new media. She used to proofread endless pages for the publishing house. It was slow work, but she relished reading the newest editions before they went to print. She remembers writing out books long-hand on 8½-by-11-inch yellow notepads.

"Some of the initial changes were scary," Curley said. "When I was growing up, computers weren't that reliable."

These days, following morning prayer, the petite brunette retreats to her office to write on her laptop and commune with readers. She loves to write. Her fourth book, "See Yourself Through God's Eyes: 52 Meditations to Grow in Self-Esteem," is expected to be turned into an audiobook. In it, she shares her personal struggles with value and self-worth.


"I believe that the scripture can be more powerful when it's heard," Curley said. "I've listened to audiobooks after having a bad day and you're really able to take that message to heart."

The convent is bursting with talented women. One nun paints as another focuses on graphic design. Some handle the finances, others the business. Sister Maria Ruth has a radio show in Spanish that reaches listeners in over 100 countries.

Sister Maria Ruth in the radio station.SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/Globe staff

Adoration takes many forms, even that of doubt. Sister Kathryn James Hermes, 51, joined in 1978. She suffered a stroke a year after taking her first vows in 1984. Uncertain how to cope, she wrote about struggling with a crisis of faith, about hopelessness and the darkness of depression. She was later diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and began a long road to recovery.

"I was wondering why God had done this to me," Hermes said over a lunch of chicken and pasta in the dining room. "I questioned if God really cared, if he loved me and if he existed."

Hermes wrote her book, "Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach," to help others survive and overcome similar challenges. It will also be turned into an audiobook and has been a catalyst for many conversations online. She calls the attention she's received a blessing and a curse.

"All my secrets are out there now," Hermes said. "In some ways, I'm no longer a private person, but it's been worth it since that suffering has now been used to help others."


Others around the table nodded. Sister Mary Lea Hill published a book about authentic prayer and negative thoughts called "Prayer and You: Wit and Wisdom From a Crabby Mystic." She realized she didn't need to pray perpetually in the ecstatically joyful manner of Teresa of Avila to talk to God. Her first chapter is titled, "Can a swear be a prayer?"

This is their challenge. A religious order dedicated to serving the world in its own language, converting media into ministry. Being in the world, but not a part of it. Rather than giving up social media for Lent, Burns encouraged people to use it to bless others.

"We live in society to help modern people," she said. "Not people that lived 200 years ago."

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com.